Work in Sports
Badgered but unbowed
U.S. men deserve kudos for unexpected and inspiring run
SYDNEY, Australia -- So they pulled a Wisconsin. It happens. Just as the Badgers stormed through this year's NCAA basketball tournament, only to flop at the Final Four, the U.S. men's soccer team got thumped 3-1 by Spain in the Olympic semis here on Tuesday night. As Dick Bennett's players will tell you, though, there's no shame in that, not after such an unexpected, inspiring run to get there in the first place.
Truth be told, the American men have been much more fun to watch than Wisconsin was, and there is another big difference between the two teams: the U.S. reached these semifinals in something close to a media vacuum. Until Tuesday, the Yanks had been toiling in the Australian outposts of Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, far from the Olympic nerve center of Sydney. At last Saturday's quarterfinal in Adelaide, for example, only six American print reporters bothered to show up.
There were probably 10 times as many here for Tuesday's game, 90 percent of them seeing this men's team for the first time (it was an off day at the track and field venue). Most of them will no doubt write stories about the vast disparity between Spain and the U.S. (a fair assessment, for one night at least), but many will also slam the men's team for ... well, for not being the women's team.
After all, the big loser in last year's Women's World Cup final wasn't China. It was the U.S. men's team. With three straight losses at World Cup '98, the U.S. men were an easy target, and scores of my dim-witted colleagues (and, sadly, many smarter journalists who knew better) made outrageous leaps of logic with the sole purpose of dissing the American men.
But as anybody who follows soccer closely will tell you, there's no comparison. Different levels of competition. Different stages of the games' development. And different games, really -- like men's and women's lacrosse, each with their own distinct pleasures.
Too often U.S. men's and women's soccer are pitted against each other, and though I've been tempted in recent days to look at the two side-by-side (a comparison that would -- surprise! -- favor the men), I finally realized that if I did it would be just as unfair as all the b.s. that's been spewed about the men in the past year.
So when you're reading the paper today, and you come across a cheap line slamming the gents, take note: The guy (or gal) who wrote that hasn't been traveling with the U.S. men through the Olympics, hasn't seen how well they've played and hasn't really got much of a clue.
Think about it. Think about Wisconsin, think about the U.S. men and think as if you were a soccer weenie like me. Whether or not the U.S. wins the bronze medal on Friday against Chile, this has been a very, very good run.
Player ratings for U.S.-Spain
Player ratings based on 1-to-10 scale, from the keeper out:
A sidenote ...
Anyone who has been reading my columns has surely noticed that Charles and I have different world views when it comes to soccer. No, we don't agree on who should start, and no, we don't agree on game strategies (there's no law that says you have to use a "target" man, Coach), but I will say this: Almost unanimously, Charles' players -- whether they're with the U.S. or the men's and women's teams at the University of Portland -- enjoy playing for him and respect him as a coach. And that is definitely worth something in my book.
Another sidenote ...
True story: Just before last Saturday's penalty kick shootout with Japan, I turned to my fellow scribes and showed them a page of my notebook with five names written on it, in this order: Vagenas, Agoos, Donovan, Wolff, Victorine. Sure enough, that turned out to be the Gang of Five who took the kicks -- and in that exact order, no less. I have no idea what that means, other than this scary thought: Clive Charles and I were actually thinking on the same wavelength. (By the way, Michael Lewis: You still owe me a cold one.)
One last sidenote ...
Lastly, I'll now telepathically communicate my starting lineup for Chile to Coach Charles:
D: Hejduk, Dunseth, Califf, Agoos.
M: Olsen, Victorine, Donovan, O'Brien.
F: Albright, Wolff.
Positioning should be self-explanatory. In the midfield I'd have Olsen on his natural right side, with O'Brien as a defensive mid cheating toward the left, the exact same position he played for the U.S. senior team against South Africa in June's U.S. Cup. (Agoos would be responsible for overlapping on the left wing.) Victorine would play Vagenas' role but add some offensive spark, and Donovan would be the attacking mid.
Subs would be Evan Whitfield (for Hejduk), Vagenas (especially if the game is nearing PK's) and Howard (for PK's -- he's an expert -- and the opportunity for a medal).
Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl is in Australia covering the
soccer competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily
to read Wahl's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.