So much for another “stouuury book endin’.” Instead, another World Cup, another loss to a more organized, powerful and faster Ghanan team. The “Great Equalizer” strikes again.
I can’t say I’m shocked given the fine players Ghana has (and two of their best weren’t even on the pitch), but I am disappointed that the US National Team squandered a fine chance to equal and perhaps surpass their best finish ever in World Cup play. Poor possession and defensive organization led to the first goal (even US keeper Tim Howard, one of the world’s best, was about a step off in cutting down the angle and protecting that near post), but the overtime game winner by Asamoah “Baby Jet” Gyan was pure soccer artistry.
First touch is everything. A world-class soccer player must be able to “catch” the ball with his foot or some other legal part of the body, even in tight space and under tremendous defensive pressure, and bring it under control the first time he touches it. Then he must be able to do something intelligent and productive with it, like finding the back of the net or a teammate who can.
For many, including young and inexperienced US strikers such as Jozy Altidore, the ball often rolls away into the possession of a defender after the first touch. Or perhaps he is so discombobulated from the tight space and the defensive pressure and the pressing need of the moment that he hangs a cleat in the turf and trips over his own feet.
Others take their first touch and proceed to write their own history.
“Baby Jet” took a high, looping ball on a dead run with his chest and set it in motion just a couple of feet in front of him, maintaining that relative distance even at full speed. He then struck the ball, still bouncing, with such authority that even Howard, with his catlike reflexes, couldn’t collar it. I cannot even begin to describe how hard that is, even though it looks commonplace on TV. Of course, great players always make it look easy.
If I had scored a goal like that, I would have danced too. But having grown up Church of Christ, I would have probably been issued a straight red card for illegal motion and woeful lack of soul.
So, how does US soccer get from here to there? Soccer in the United States is for the most part an affluent and suburban sport–unlike the rest of the world. Most serious players and their parents have payed mounds of money to play in a club system with the hopes of merely making varsity in high school or maybe snagging some hard-to-come-by college scholarship money.
Even those who make it and play in college often don’t play all four years. They become distracted and lose interest or the injuries mount and they finally hang up their boots. The best player that Huntsville has ever produced played briefly on the US Under-20 team a few years ago and went to UNC-Chapel Hill where he led the team in scoring for a couple of seasons. But he was injured during his junior year and sat out, and by the time he came back as a senior, he suddenly found that he had been replaced by the latest and greatest 18-year-old sensation. Fortunately, he’s a smart guy and has medical school to fall back on.
Somewhere in the barrios and ghettos of America, there are young kids who possess the gift of the “first touch.” Yet even here in my part of Huntsville, players like that wouldn’t be able to afford the fees to play high school varsity soccer.
US Soccer must find a way to change all that. Otherwise, our “first touch” will continue to be our last.