Work in Sports
Coming of age
U.S. men's soccer joins ranks of the world's best
ADELAIDE, Australia -- "It's just a youth tournament." "The best players in the world aren't here." "It's not like Zinedine Zidane is playing."
Those are just a few of the asinine things I've heard this week from soccer people -- respected soccer people, in fact -- who want to downplay the U.S. men's soccer team's stunning run to the Olympic semifinals, where they will face Spain on Tuesday.
You know what? They're wrong. Every one of them. They just need to step back and see the bigger picture.
Granted, men's Olympic soccer is not the World Cup. (Each team is allowed only three players over the age of 23.) And yes, the competition at these Olympics may be a shade below the one four years ago, when Argentina, Brazil and Nigeria sent virtually the same teams that would represent them in World Cup '98.
But none of that matters. If the Americans reach the gold-medal game, it will raise men's soccer to a new level of recognition in the United States, and here's why:
1) Mainstream American sports fans like to see U.S. teams winning at the Olympics. Last year the U.S. senior men's team placed third at the Confederations Cup, a tournament that included world powers Brazil, Germany and Mexico. It was a fantastic result, but how many ordinary sports fans know what the Confederations Cup is? The U.S. team is kicking some serious tail at the Olympics, an event that Joe and Jane Six Pack use as an international standard for athletic excellence.
2) Whether or not you like soccer, the U.S. men are awfully fun to watch. Anyone who witnessed the U.S.'s heart-stopping come-from-behind victory over Japan on Saturday saw something special: an American men's soccer team that attacked with abandon, refused to give up when it was down, and had a flair for the dramatic -- a game-tying goal in the 88th minute and a breathtaking penalty-kick climax.
3) Olympic competition isn't a youth tournament. Youth tournaments are for teenagers. By the time players are 23, they've they've played professionally for as many as eight years. In other words, the kid gloves are off. "These are all men out here," says 18-year-old U.S. striker Landon Donovan, the team's youngest player. "Besides, the Olympics is the biggest sporting event on the planet."
4) The future suddenly looks very bright for the U.S. men. It boils down to this: The best under-23 soccer players from the U.S. have already gone farther in this tournament than the best under-23 soccer players from Italy (a quarterfinal loser to Spain) and Brazil (a quarterfinal loser to Cameroon). Italy and Brazil have won a combined seven World Cups. Ponder that for a moment.
Certainly the U.S. men are doing their part, and now it's NBC's turn. Keep in mind, the network choked in '96 when it passed on the chance to show the gold-medal run of the U.S. women's soccer team. Will the Peacock do it again with the men? It wasn't a good sign when commentators Alexi Lalas and Andres Cantor didn't show up here in Adelaide for the quarterfinals, instead calling the game from a Sydney studio for MSNBC. The network can rectify that gaffe, however, by giving the U.S. men the attention they deserve -- on NBC, not on cable -- for Tuesday's semifinal in Sydney.
In the meantime, I'll amend what I wrote a couple of days ago. The U.S. men's soccer team isn't just the best American soccer story of these Olympics anymore; it's one of the best stories. Period.
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.