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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U-S-A!: A Conversation

EDITOR’S NOTE: Someone (me) once said (just now, for real) that American soccer is a question in search of a question mark. But who asked that question, and what other punctuation might it contain? To find out, we deployed two brilliant young sportswriters, the latest in electronic-communications technology, and the copy-paste function. Here’s what happened.

Kevin: Ryan, where were you when you first heard that Jurgen Klinsmann would be taking over the U.S. Men’s National Team?

Ryan: I think I was on a beach in South Carolina, probably getting skin cancer. People texted me about this. I love technology. But should I even remember where I was, like this is some kind of world- and self-altering moment?

Kevin: I don’t think so, but that’s exactly how the sports media seemed to treat it. There was talk of salvation, messiahs, ascension into (soccer) heaven. I don’t remember exactly where I was at the time, but I seem to recall a quick little earthquake, and a curtain tearing right down the middle.

Ryan: That sounds about right. But I thought the Messiah was gonna be American? I mean, he should be, right? U-S-A!

Kevin: Call it outsourcing. ANYWAY, we had a sports narrative forming: Klinsmann as America’s soccer Jesus, come to cleanse us of our sins, which in this case, I imagine, mainly consist of our best athletes heading toward the NFL and NBA. And I started to think about a couple of things. Like: what exactly is salvation for American soccer?

Ryan: Well for anyone who isn’t reading this site, it would probably mean the U.S. winning the World Cup … in 2014. That (probably) won’t happen. The real salvation would be a transformation of U.S. Soccer’s youth structure, a fuller player-identification process, and a cohesive national style that doesn’t involve scoring on free kicks every game. If you can do that, you can walk on water—or any liquid, for that matter.

Kevin: So, in that respect, Klinsmann is certainly a step in the right direction.

Ryan: Early results aside, he’s said all the right things so far. But we’ll see. You can shade his managerial past in whatever color you want because he was both really successful and really poor, at times. More importantly, though, I think he represents something different. He’s a symbol for a new period in US soccer, proof we’ve realized we’re really just not that good yet.

Kevin: A pretty important thing to realize if you’re going to get any better. And I agree. I also think that Klinsmann represents what’s so hilarious about the American people and their approach to the USMNT. The popular desire is for him to be another quick fix, the Freddy Adu that works, the Landon Donovan who can do it on his own. But—he’s a coach.

Ryan: Yep, a coach can only do so much. He’ll be able to set systems up, on and off the field, that hopefully are more conducive to making the U.S. a better soccer team and soccer country. But he can’t play, and he can’t actually make the players play well, and he can’t grow the next Pele in a test tube … for now.

Kevin: FOR NOW. I bet you Nike’s working on it as we speak. But until then, here we are, the California German at the helm. And we have some players. Some of them aren’t half bad! But enough with talking reasonable. We need a player to pin our hopes on. Like a donkey.

Ryan: I present to you: Dane Brekken Shea. If that’s not an American name, then I’m not writing this with an American flag draped around my naked body.

Kevin: American as Arnold Schwarzenegger and double-black-diamond ski slopes. Brek Shea had a helluva showing in the USMNT game against Mexico just a few weeks back, notching an assist to Robbie Rogers—who’s as fast as a boulder shot from a cannon, and about as in control—and almost scoring himself. He’s also tearing up MLS. Ryan, what about Brek Shea makes you want to throw upon him your hopes and adoration?

Ryan: Definitely his hair. It’s like he has two different types of hair on one head. He also had a blonde afro at one point. I’d say it ranks right ahead of the albino guitarist’s fro in ‘Not Another Teen Movie’ in the 21st-Century Non-Traditional American Fro Rankings.

Kevin: It’s true. There are two ways to pull off hair like that: you either ooze confidence and drip invincibility, show some swagger, which describes no American soccer player I can think of except maybe Donovan. Or you cultivate an otherworldly, untouchable weirdness. Shea falls in the latter camp.

Ryan: Clint Dempsey just sent an Anthrax-filled envelope to your house.

Kevin: Clint Dempsey is ALSO in that latter camp. Because he totally would do something like that. This isn’t a bad thing!

Ryan: The more players willing to kill people with mail-driven death concoctions, the better. But back to our fro’d pal, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as we tend to do, being Americans. But what’s so great—well, promising—about this young buck, is that he’s got everything that has characterized American soccer’s failures (size, speed, tantalizing physical gifts) and everything we’ve lacked (a knowledge of how to actually play the sport you’re playing, good feet, etc.). In his fully-idealized-and-realized form, he’s what we think American soccer could be.

Kevin: In case you’re wondering, Ryan and I are sportswriters. It’s our job to be ahead of ourselves. But I agree that Shea’s actual knowledge of the sport is promising. And he looked dominant against Mexico, displaying a presence on the field—an ability to influence the flow of events—that I couldn’t remember seeing in a recent American player. Particularly any American players with the last name “Bradley.”

Ryan: Be careful, Michael Bradley might come find you and scream in your face if you keep making fun of him. But yes, that’s something we’ve sorely lacked in the past. There have been players—John O’Brien, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Torres—who looked like they would be the guys who could finally pull the game back from the hamster-in-a-wheel style the US tends toward, but either injuries, lack of club form, or just an inability to make it into the coach’s plans (see: Torres playing 45 minutes at the World Cup and Feilhaber being subbed on at halftime of too many World Cup game) has kept that from happening.

Kevin: Don’t mention Benny Feilhaber. I might start crying. In fact, my experience with Feilhaber is pretty emblematic of the salvation fallacy. I can actually remember where I was when I saw him hit that wizard volley against Mexico in the Gold Cup in ’07, and I fell for the promise of that guy. And then he dumped—I mean, things just didn’t work out. I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT. He was even Jewish!

Ryan: Oh yes, the Maccabi Samba King, as no one has ever called him. I feel your pain. I wrote this long story about him right after he scored that goal, and then his career just sort of didn’t happen. I’m not saying I can affect stuff like that, but I affected stuff like that.

Kevin: Ahh, you ruined everything. But this is part of the tantalizing, brutal treadmill of American soccer in the last decade: you have these players flash like nuclear explosions and then fade on the wind. Afterward, all you’ve got is the radioactive fallout, which sucks. This is part of why the USWNT was so satisfying this year: electric personalities like Hope Solo and Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan—whom I would marry right this minute, I’m pretty sure—and the results to go along with the star power. Though it might just be in the minds of guys like you and me that Benny Feilhaber and Jose Torres seem like “stars.”

Ryan: She has a boyfriend. He plays in MLS. So you have a shot. But isn’t that where we hope Klinsmann can bring us? A place where Torres and Feilhaber ARE stars, where the less-obvious skills they bring to the team are more appreciated. When players like Jose Torres start making second-segment appearances on The Craig Ferguson Show (which, I believe, is still on the air), I’ll shoot off a Budweiser bottle rocket and finally say, “We’ve made it!”

Kevin: That’s what I like to call the American Dream. But yeah, you’re right. So let’s survey the goods, which no longer seem to include Benny, at the very least, and let’s start at the top: Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey. Brek Shea aside, these three still provide the core of our soccer hopes, right?

Ryan: Sure, they’re our best hopes right now, but they won’t have much of an effect beyond 2014. And that’s where we need to be looking.

Kevin: The next generation. Which, I think, could still include Freddy Adu.

Ryan: It could. There are a lot of promising American players—and a lot who we haven’t even heard of. Most of them won’t pan out, but hopefully more will than in the past. That’s where that German guy comes in.

Kevin: Right, that’s his promise that we actually expect him to make good on. Where do we stand on Jozy Altidore these days? He’s another uniquely American enigma.

Ryan: He’s scoring goals in Holland, and in the Europa League, each of which is worth about .63 goals in Spain. He’s the quintessential “Dude, if we could get more guys like him playing soccer …” player, so it’ll be interesting to see what Klinsmann does with him. He should be like 34, but he’s 21, so there’s still time.

Kevin: Yeah, the cycle of hype with American players always starts so early that you end up thinking about the guys and being like, “Oh man, Jozy Altidore! He must be getting up there by now.” And then you look, and yep, he’s still younger than you. Funny how that works.

Ryan: As we focus on “that next guy,” that tends to happen. And we always will, but maybe one day we’ll have too many “next guys” to focus on without our heads exploding. That’s the world I one day hope to live in. Also: one where squirrels don’t exist.

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U-S-A!: A Conversation

by Ryan O'Hanlon & Kevin Lincoln · September 19, 2011

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