By David Kilpatrick, DKilpatrick [AT] mercy [DOT] edu
“There are no friendlies in football” is a well-worn cliché of the game, one that supporters of the sport in the United States are resorting to in defense of their enthusiasm for the men’s national team’s 0-1 victory over Italy in Genoa this week. As any Yank who has ever played overseas knows well, each match – whether pickup or pro – is a battle for respectability.
To be sure, there have been more shocking and significant results in the history of American soccer, from the win over England by the same scoreline in Belo Horizonte at the 1950 World Cup, to the 2-0 win over the defending European and eventual World Champion Spanish side in the semifinal of the 2009 Confederations Cup in Johannesburg. But this was the first time in eleven efforts that the Americans were able to defeat the Azzurri. The 1-1 draw between the sides in the group stages of the 2006 World Cup Finals, the US playing much of the match with ten men, may well have been a greater accomplishment, as they were the only side to play but not lose to the eventual champions of that tournament. While no title was at stake this week, the result would be less impressive if earned on neutral soil; one cannot overstate the significance of Italy suffering their first defeat in Genoa since 1924.
The international break generated debate about Jürgen Klinsmann’s short tenure as USA selector and coach. Results of friendlies aside, George Vecsey of the New York Times points out that the German is a proponent of “the revolutionary theory for young players that soccer should be fun” and invites fans to watch the team’s training sessions. Together with Claudio Reyna — the former fantasista turned head of US player development — Klinsmann believes “coaches can teach soccer, but on the field, soccer is not a teachable sport. [ . . .] Athletes must play the game by themselves; they must be creative.”
Of course, the US soccer system has demonstrated little such creativity so far. In general, its pay-for-play youth system marginalizes or excludes the working class and the poor and almost invariably produces robotic, Anglophile, tactically troglodytic teams. So is Klinsmann’s project reformist or revolutionary?
Amy Lawrence in The Guardian’s Sports Blog writes that “the great German enthusiast is trying to overhaul football in the US not just the national team.” The post picks up on some of Vecsey’s insights and adds Klinsmann’s criticism of both the short MLS season and the archaic system of using college soccer to form professional players. Readers’ comments on the blog page make for fascinating reading. What do you think about the Klinsi debate?