Wednesday, June 25, 2014

2014 World Cup CHEATSHEET: US Men's National Team

Entire country coming to a standstill tomorrow to watch American play soccer and you'd like to have an idea of who's rep'ing the Red, White, and Blue? You've come a pretty good place (though the right place is probably meninblazers.com). Though I'm terrified that anything I write might end up being incredibly jinxy, here are my personal thoughts on a very likable United States soccer team.

GOALIES

The United States has been producing world-caliber goalies for quite some time now. Historically, the best ones have had no hair, and this roster is no exception.

Tim Howard is our starter. He's a man's man, the sort that would grow a beard to play a ninety-degrees-in-the-shade game in the Amazon jungle. He's originally from New Jersey. Once upon a time ago, he played for the infamous Manchester United. Now he plays for Everton, a spunky team in Liverpool in the English Premier League (and they wear the same color blue as the Indianapolis Colts, so I dig them). He's lived with Tourette Syndrome and plays in goal as though he's moving his defenders around with a PlayStation controller.

Our backup goalie is a guy from the Chicago 'burbs named Brad Guzan. While we obviously hope Timmy Howard maintains perfect health, we do have some depth at the position should something go horribly wrong. Brad also plays in the EPL, for Aston Villa in Birmingham, and Brad actually played in a lot of the games that qualified the US for the World Cup. Our third goalie is a guy I don't know anything about: Nick Rimando, who plays for Salt Lake City in MLS (who lost in the championship game last season to Kansas City). He has a full head of hair, so I'm not sure how I feel about him. He's probably a really nice guy who's kind to puppies and children.

THE DUAL CITIZENS

A lot has been made about Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's German kids (Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, John Anthony Brooks, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green). Guys with one American parent and one European parent, the children of American soldiers who were stationed overseas. Four of the five have played, and they've really risen to the occasion (Green hasn't played, but for crying out loud, he's 19 years old). There were some questions of how "American" these guys really were. Maybe they've never lived in the States. Maybe they speak with European accents. Maybe they just decided to play for the States because "they weren't good enough" to make Germany's roster.

We can't know what's in these guys' hearts, but I have thought a lot about how much identity is wrapped up in nationalism (I wrote a novel about it once upon a time ago, so this narrative is particularly special to me). At some point in history, all of us have ancestors who chose to be American. Nobody forced these guys to join the team. We don't know for sure that the line about them "not being good enough" is actually true (especially in Julian Green's case, because NINETEEN YEARS OLD). So long as these fellas want to be American, that's good enough for me. They've already made a lot of positive noise in the World Cup, and they'll no doubt (for better or worse) be the story against Germany.

There are two other kiddos on the roster who had to choose their national soccer allegiances: Aron Johannssen and (my personal favorite) Mix Diskerud. These are our Scandinavian Americans. Aron, who came on for the injured Jozy Altidore against Ghana, was born in Alabama, but grew up in Iceland (some have nicknamed him "The Iceman"). Mix, who might have the coolest name in all of American sports, has a Norwegian father and Arizonian mother. Match-ups and injuries have demanded particular players play, and Klinsmann has done a magnificent job managing this roster, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm terribly disappointed Mix hasn't gotten to play yet. But he's young. And delightful. He'll get his chance.

THE UNEXPECTED MLS HEROES

One of the underrated stories of this World Cup how our domestic league players have really delivered. The United States brought several established players who have been toiling in MLS for years, who maybe thought their chances at making a World Cup team were over.

Matt Besler and Graham Zusi both play for reigning MLS champions Kansas City (who, by the way, have really nice uniforms). These two are best buddies. Besler has been awesome as a defender in two games, despite his gimpy hamstring. I didn't know much about him until he caught my attention in the ESPN 30for30 documentary on the team, when he basically said "Ronaldo's good, but he's human." And Graham Zusi has been a corner kick wizard, getting two assists and looking good doing it.

One of the truly blue-collar players has been Kyle Beckerman, he of the famous dreads. He plays for Salt Lake City, doesn't get a lot of glory, but plays hard and with a great attitude. Side note: if you want to get attached to an MLS team and aren't sure where to start, the pattern of players on the national team would probably lead you toward Kansas City, Salt Lake City, LA Galaxy, or Seattle. If Mix's transfer to Portland had gone through, my allegiance would be finalized. Alas.

We can't forget Chris Wondolowski here, either. Wondo's a California guy of Native American heritage with eyes so big and innocent I like to think of him as the American Puss-In-Boots, right down to his quiet assassin-like tendencies. DeAndre Yedlin, a burst of energy off the bench against Portugal, was born in Seattle and now plays for Seattle, too. Omar Gonzalez is a basketball-tall soft-spoken guy from Texas who now plays for the LA Galaxy. And Brad Davis, who plays in bright orange for the Houston Dynamo, does a lot of great work with military families.

One thing to keep an eye on: if the United States continues to play well, some of these players making names for themselves might get opportunities to move to higher paying teams overseas. MLS has a salary cap; the European leagues do not, and they don't have limits on how many guys they can keep on their rosters, either. If these guys attract foreign attention, it could be good for them, but it might potentially suck for the home league to lose them.

AMERICAN GLOBETROTTERS

As much as MLS has improved over the last twenty or so years, the best players still play elsewhere. But, there has been a bit of a trend lately of American globetrotting players coming home. Our star goal scorer, Clint Dempsey, played for a couple of London teams, Fulham (which is now owned by the same guy who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars) and Tottenham (one of the bigger teams in the English Premier League). But, in the run up to the World Cup, Dempsey shocked everyone by coming home to play for Seattle, arguably the most rabid soccer fanbase in America. They consistently fill the Seattle Seahawks' football stadium and behave like a really, really big college student section. Seattle is amazing.

After Dempsey came home, so did Michael Bradley. He'd been playing in Rome for one of the better teams in Italy, but now he's stationed in Toronto (yes, I know it's technically in Canada, but it's still our domestic league). Defender Geoff Cameron, who has taken a little heat for the goal at the end of the game against Portugal, plays for Stoke in the English Premier League. An English TV announcer once described him throwing a ball in from out of bounds as "Quarterback Style!" Though defenders don't score very often, it is fun to scream "Quarterback Style!" any time Cameron does something good. But when things go a little sideways, he has been known to get Tim Duncan eyes.

To round out the roster, Alejandro Bedoya plays in France, and DaMarcus Beasley (originally of Fort Wayne, Indiana) plays in Mexico. And of course, our injured playmaker, Jozy Altidore, a Floridian born to Haitian immigrant parents who scored goals like a maniac when he played in the Dutch league (with Aron Johannssen), then almost suffered relegation with Sunderland in England. Jozy's been tumbling around inside a cement mixer for about a year, but hopefully he's on the mend. That's twenty-three likable guys, each with a story to tell and with something to contribute. But really, the star of the team seems to be Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He's dynamic, he's charismatic, and he's played a very, very smart tournament. I've grown quite fond of him. Regardless of what happens Thursday, I hope he has this job for a long, long time.

I BELIEVE.