Work in Sports
The world is watching
U.S. men make history and international headway
MELBOURNE, Australia -- On the flight back from Canberra the other day, I sat next to Steve Crowley, who happens to be the chief scout for Arsenal of the English Premier League. (Thanks for the upgrade, Qantas.) I was curious about Crowley's impressions of the U.S. men's soccer team, and so I asked him straight up: What do you make of these young Americans?
Keep in mind, this is not a man who earns his living by humoring American reporters or by lavishing false praise on U.S. soccer players. Which is what made Crowley's assessments particularly striking.
For starters, Crowley said he was already familiar with 18-year-old Landon Donovan, revealing that Arsenal had pursued the precocious sniper two years ago before Donovan signed with Germany's Bayer Leverkusen. According to Crowley, Donovan "totally outplayed" English wonderboy Joe Cole in an under-16 game he saw in 1998, scoring a hat trick.
What's more, Crowley liked the look of Ajax midfielder John O'Brien ("a lot of poise on the ball") and University of Portland forward Conor Casey, 19, who "has the build and potential to be a Premiership player."
Intriguing stuff. But the most significant thing Crowley said had to do with the other American who caught his eye, L.A. Galaxy defender Danny Califf.
What better way to demonstrate the Americans' enormous depth of talent? After all, Califf, 20, wasn't even supposed to play in this tournament, much less pique the interest of Arsenal scouts. But when Brian Dunseth went down with an injury, Califf stepped in for the U.S.'s opening 2-2 tie with the Czech Republic. In three games Califf has played so well that while Dunseth has recovered, the starting job is now Califf's to lose.
In Wednesday night's 3-1 victory here over Kuwait, Califf justified coach Clive Charles' faith in him once again, controlling the center of the American defense and scoring the first U.S. goal by heading in Jeff Agoos' superbly struck corner kick. With the win, the American men reached the Olympic quarterfinals for the first time in 12 tries dating back to 1924.
In other words, we're witnessing American soccer history, and the reasons are clear. Thanks to MLS and U.S. Soccer's youth development programs, the United States is producing more international-caliber players than ever before. And the talent pool goes deeper than Donovan, who justified a switch to the starting lineup on Wednesday by sparking the offense and scoring a goal against Kuwait.
Consider Califf, for example. There's certainly no denying his skills. In addition to Crowley's endorsement, U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena told me on Wednesday that he would have made Califf the first overall pick in last spring's MLS Draft. (Califf ended up going sixth.) Moreover, when I polled MLS players recently for their choice as Rookie of the Year, Califf was the third-highest vote-getter.
Yet the fact that the top two choices in that poll, defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Nick Garcia, didn't even make the Olympic team should give you an idea of how much talent the U.S. suddenly has at its disposal.
Who knows what will happen in the U.S.'s quarterfinal matchup in Adelaide on Saturday against Brazil, Japan or South Africa? But I am sure of one thing: With apologies to the U.S. women's team, the American men are fast becoming the soccer story of these Olympics.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl is in Australia covering the Games
for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Wahl's
behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.