“In My Opinion……….”

Ray Alley

Some teams go to the World Cup to play. To participate! To compete!

There are others that go to the World Cup to win the tournament. World Champions!

That includes the eight countries that have won FIFA Men’s World Cup championships …..Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, France, England and Spain. And yes, Uruguay, which has two World Cup titles, in 1930 and 1950.

These, along with a handful of others who have come close, but have yet to hoist the World Cup trophy, are the big fishes.

The United States aspires to be a big fish. We have a long way to go to achieve that title.

We are somewhere in that second tier at the world level. We can be dangerous, but to be honest, despite some impressive wins against some of those former World Champions over the last decade or so, not many of the big fish are very concerned about losing to the U.S. team.

But this is not about the big fish. It is about the minnows. The little fish, the ones in our region who have proven difficult for the U.S. MNT to beat, especially away from U.S. soil.

It is also about us. Our national team has gotten better since we began a run of six consecutive trips to the World Cup with a shocking 1-0 road victory in Trinidad & Tobago on a second-half goal by Paul Caliguiri in the last match of the qualifying round for the 1990 World Cup in the fall of 1989.

But as recent results in the semifinals of regional qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil show, we still struggle on the road to beat the minnows.

We settled for a 1-1 draw in Guatemala, and lost 1-0 in Jamaica. Eddie Johnson’s dramatic goal in the tiny island nation of Antigua & Barbuda, population about 87,000, gave us our only road victory. It set the stage for the final game of the CONCACAF semifinals, at home in Kansas City, Kansas against Guatemala.

Our best World Cup showing in modern times was a 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals. We have beaten Germany, England, Italy, Spain and Brazil. All but the win over Spain, in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, were in friendlies. This year we have won major friendlies in Italy and in Mexico City, where we had been 0-forever.

The U.S. seems to have a difficult time putting multiple victories together against the top European and South American teams. We have struggled at the World Cup against the Africans.

That is not a recipe for success against the Big Fishes. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the players. Are we good enough?

All of the players in our senior national player pool now are professionals. They play outside the U.S. and they play here in Major League Soccer. Some are among the top players on their respective teams, and some struggle to even get on the field.

Unlike the other major league professional sports in the U.S., our soccer players are not dazzled by multimillion dollar contracts. The NBA and NFL make millionaires out of young men who have never scored a professional basketball point or played a professional down of football.

Rewarded for their talent, and paid handsomely for their potential. And yet it has happened to soccer players, some in our player pool and others who have come and gone.

Freddy Adu was the highest paid member of D.C. United at age 14, but struggled to find anyplace at all where he could play during his European Odyssey.

Jozy Altidore was a teenage scoring sensation for New York of MLS, signed a Spanish contract, and began a journey from club to club before settling in Holland’s highest professional division where he is lighting it up, but not playing well enough to make the last U.S. roster.

Even Johnson left a successful MLS career for a chance to play in England. After moderate success, he’s back in MLS and scoring goals in Kansas City.

Can you believe after he scored twice against the minnow Antigua & Barbuda, there were some reports of interest coming from European clubs? Is he a much different player now than the one who left Fulham to come home?

Even Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have their bad outings. They can fade in an out of games with the best of them.

Physical talent is easy to evaluate, but it is impossible to look into a player’s mind and into his heart.

Soccer players like to talk about having “a passion” for the game. But do our players have the deep-down hunger to succeed.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinnsman, who had it when he played for Germany, has talked about that in terms of his players. He hasn’t openly questioned that, but he’s spoken about the necessity to have a mentality of hunger for success.

Barring a disaster in the final semifinal game with Guatemala, we will enter the final round that is likely to include Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama. No easy road wins there.

For Donovan, Dempsey and the other veterans there won’t be many more World Cups in their careers. For those getting first chances, now is the time to grab the brass ring. It all comes down to the mental part of playing the game, and who wants most to win.
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