Counting down to FIFA 2010

Ed note: Originally published on Facebook 10/11/09

Eight years ago The Beverage and his better half shared one of our more memorable live sports experiences at a U.S. v. Honduras World Cup qualifier in RFK Stadium.

For pure visceral enjoyment, it was better than both Super Bowls and all but one Texas/OU game that I’ve attended – the latter being the Red River Shootout just over a month later (and oh, what a fateful month it was, but that’s another story).

Anyway, the U.S. lost at RFK on that cold Saturday morning in September 2001, and it remains the last World Cup qualifier that we’ve lost on home soil.

But to call the confines of RFK that day “home soil” is a stretch in all but the most literal sense. Hondurans outnumbered Americans at least 2 to 1, if not more, and the curtain of blue balloons flew from the upper deck after the visiting team’s national anthem, not the Stars and Stripes.

Also, the game started at 10 a.m., so it could be on television.

Due to the perils of television licensing in totalitarian states and basic cable on vacation, I’ve had the privilege of watching the past three U.S. qualifiers (1) on a previously unknown channel called perhaps “MunDos,” (2) in low-D and Spanish on I-don’t-even-know-what channel, and (3) not at all.

As I pondered the terrible condition of not being able to watch the qualifying clinching game last night in Honduras, two things occurred to me:

First, American soccer fans today are totally spoiled.

Next year in South Africa will be our sixth consecutive World Cup finals. I have become accustomed – one might say, I’ve come to feel entitled – to having important soccer games televised live, commercial free in high-definition and in English, as every World Cup game next summer again will be.

In 1990, when we made our first World Cup finals in 40 years, I don’t think a single qualifying game was televised, at least not where I could get to it without cable or a giant satellite dish. I recall learning of the fact that we had qualified from Sports Illustrated maybe two weeks after it happened.

We first became accustomed to occasionally seeing the boys live, in color and in English during the run up to the 1994 World Cup, but in the 15 years since it has become the norm. Gradually the days of grainy Spanish-language broadcasts have become a distant memory.

They were brought rushing back in the past couple of months, leading me to observe that…

Second, the play on the field has come a long way as well. We are not great, but we are really quite good.

Landon Donovan – upon whom I will confess I was heaping abuse a few months back – has now spent nearly a decade wearing the USA’s No. 10 and having much worse than my abuse heaped upon him over-and-over in a dozen poured-concrete Latin American stadia (and a few at home…stay classy, Los Angeles).

Conor Casey (who reminds me of Clint Mathis circa 2000) picked up the garbage goal mantle in Clint Dempsey’s absence last night, but once again it was Donovan securing the clincher on a clinical free kick in the second half.

After struggling to find a natural position during his international career, Donovan has now found a perfect home at something like left wing, where his darting runs to the inside set up right footed shots and he can whip crosses in from a dead run. He’s been mustard for the whole second trip through the hexagonal qualifying gauntlet, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) he maybe even deserves consideration to pull the captain’s armband back from Carlos Bocanegra.

Ed note: Since this was first published, Landon has gone on to show even greater prowess at the wing in his club career-vindicating spell with Everton.

As we look toward South Africa, this team is not nearly as good as it could be, and there will maybe never be the talent on hand that there is in England, Spain, Brazil, etc.

But we have now made qualifying and live English-language television routine.

What I can’t tell right now is whether it is time to say that we are consistently better than the second tier of international football – the Denmarks and Scotlands, Paraguays and Colombias, Japans and Egypts. I think yes, but I am not sure.

After the maiden voyage at Italia ’90, we have produced a recurring pattern of surprising World Cup success followed with spectacular failure, but we’ve been there every time, which is more than most can say.

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