The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Tim Howard may be Jesus’s desktop, but pride kills progress. You can’t claim honest rivalry on one end and moral victory on the other, especially if you went to the game as a knowing participant in a fury of modern hype. Not even Manchester City does that. So for the sake of self-respect, or whatever the equivalent is when you’re writing about hope and strangers, it has to be acknowledged: our guys missed chances that didn’t want to be missed (Altidore missed one in each half), gave up a goal that didn’t want to be scored, defended clumsily at times, and got pinned back in their own territory for far too much of the second half. This shouldn’t be “let’s be glad they did their best,” but “this was a win they didn’t take,” especially given that the Dempsey goal was an assist to Green’s fingers. A little bit of grim feeling is not a bad thing here. Straight happiness would feel better, but then all you ever are is adorable.

And that’s where this gets better, because the beauty of 1-1 is that no part of this was adorable. It was a game of flawed equals, incomplete chess sets mowing down each other’s pawns, not an underdog reaching for Hollywood. We did things right, we did things wrong, and so did they. We were not the little team that could, in part because we couldn’t. They had better stats, but they spiked their numbers in the last 20 minutes when they finally got scared of the future; England in panic mode always keep 80% of the ball and never really look that threatening (even when they win late, if that’s possible). They’re getting better at it, but their patience game still feels like cautious diplomacy: everyone speaking in turns, nobody saying anything. Replay this 10 times, and England wouldn’t win nine of them.

So let in a grain of disappointment, not because the game shouldn’t be fun, but because it means you belong. Cherundolo was better—stronger, smarter—than both Milner and Shaun Wright-Phillips; Bocanegra got burned a few times, but basically contended with Lennon; the whole back line (with help from Clark, for all his mistakenness) kept Rooney starved of oxygen. If Altidore hadn’t been the 37th-choice striker at Hull (which never made sense to me, but then what do I know compared to Hull’s current manager, Vacant) he might have had the centimeters game to win this. Anyway it was fun watching him sow the field with Carragher. I hope Vacant was paying attention. In any case, David Beckham’s instantly legendary look of impotent, fuming grief on the sidelines—so much better because it was the only spontaneous part of his appearance; dude looked like a museum piece—was fully justified, and not only by Green’s supra-clumsiness.

I would have liked to see Donovan come inside more aggressively and sail the ball at Green’s reluctant limbs; I think they might have missed it at some point. But the U.S. gameplan was patient, well-drilled, and with the exception of some spin-around defending, it was also pretty precise. They actually used their midfielders, which was pleasant. On the England side, I wonder if we’re looking at a backlash against Capello’s clampdown regime. It was the story they brought him in for, but after two years of him banning bubble gum every week, you could conclude that they’re too antiseptic. You can’t win the duel if you’re too rule-bound to stab a guy, and Rooney’s a bull-headed kid. Maybe just let him curse.

The existential conflict of soccer in America, at least once you’re invested to a certain degree, is that we want to be good but we also want something to celebrate. So we put the team in a weird bubble that lets us be sentimentally happy about them (we went up 2-0 on Brazil!), but that also means we’re always a little more anxious and depressed than we let on (we let them score three in the second half!). In a sport with so many layers and nations, you’re probably always forced to make some version of that distinction, and unless you want to go down the screaming-media permanent-meltdown route, thinking of individuals and what they’re able to accomplish is a humane way to care about a team. But there’s also a moment when you have to say that your game can contend with reality, no Little League buffer necessary. U.S. soccer is there. That’s something to be proud of on its own.

I’m glad it’s over, because now this tournament can start. I’m also glad it happened, because it told us something we needed to know. No, it isn’t going to make soccer popular in America.

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by Brian Phillips · June 12, 2010

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