Is American Soccer Coming of Age?
August 12, 2013 - 8:29 am
In near 100-degree sweltering heat Sunday, FC Dallas hosted the LA Galaxy for what turned out to be a night to remember. The Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, number 10 on his team and arguably the best soccer player the United States has ever produced, hammered in three goals to clinch his first MLS hat trick since 2008, and only his fourth all-time. Not bad for a 31-year-old who started off 2013 on the fringes of the game, leaving fans wondering if he would ever return.
But Landon Donovan has returned. In a huge way. And he’s hauling US soccer into the limelight with each appearance on the pitch.
The 5’8″ forward is in the middle of a personal renaissance just as America’s Major League Soccer is building up to become a viable and entertaining league for the long-term and America’s MLS-powered international team is pushing forward to become one of the world’s elite.
The Seattle Sounders MLS franchise has just scored a world-shaking coup, bringing Texan Clint Dempsey back from England’s Premiere League in his prime. Dempsey became the first American to net a hat trick in the Premiere League last season with Tottenham Hotspur. Now he’s coming back to MLS to link up with striker Eddie Johnson, another American international, to push the Sounders into the MLS playoffs. He’s also bucking a trend that has seen MLS produce international-class American players who then get snapped up by Europe. With the two-headed beast of Dempsey and Johnson leading the line, the Sounders now have to be favorites not only to get into the playoffs but to get into the final. That New York-Los Angeles final that MLS boosters have long dreamed of may have to wait another year.
A few days before fans in Dallas watched their team battle with Donovan’s Galaxy for a thrilling 3-3 draw, FIFA’s world rankings came out and included a mini-bombshell. The United States has passed Mexico to move into the top 20 international teams in the world.
America’s ranking is no fluke. The US national team’s B team won the CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 28 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The US defeated Panama in front of 57,920 fans, admittedly many of them Mexicans who expected to see their national team in the final to win it again, only to be disappointed by its defeat to Panama in the semi-final. The Americans cruised all the way through the tournament, winning all of their matches, scoring far more goals than any other team, and leaving no doubt that our B team is capable of overhauling the regional competition’s A teams.
That US B team included Donovan and the aforementioned Johnson, whose performances made the US an offensive juggernaut. Two Americans, Donovan and Chris Wondolowski, tied for top scorer with 5 apiece. All Johnson did was walk onto the field in the second half of the quarterfinal match against El Salvador to score the clincher with his first touch of the tournament.
That’s former US international Eric Wynalda in the commentary, chiding US coach Jurgen Klinsmann for subbing Johnson in on a corner kick, before Johnson bangs home the winner with his lightning bolt buzz cut. Klinsmann’s tactics proved right then as they did throughout the tournament. He brought Brek Shea, formerly of FC Dallas and now with England’s Stoke City, on as a sub twice — and Shea scored winners both times.
Now, CONCACAF isn’t the Euros or even South America’s CONMEBOL. But the US made a statement by winning the 2013 tournament in emphatic fashion. And the Gold Cup isn’t the only thing the Americans are dominating.
The US A team, which is sure to include Donovan when it returns to World Cup qualifying in September, is in charge of its own destiny after dominating Panama 2-0 on June 11 in Seattle.
The U.S. improved to 9-1-2 all-time against Panama and is 22-0-2 in home qualifiers since losing to Honduras in September 2001 at RFK Stadium. They are 36-1-7 since losing to Costa Rica in 1985 at Torrance, Calif.
The match was played before 40,847, the seventh-largest crowd for a World Cup qualifier in U.S. soccer history, in exactly the atmosphere U.S. Soccer hoped it would get by playing the qualifier in Seattle.
Seattle may be the US soccer capital after that match. While other cities, including Dallas, can offer larger venues (Cowboys Stadium, now AT&T Stadium, hosted the Gold Cup semifinals), none can turn out as rabidly a pro-American crowd as the Emerald City.
Seattle can also turn out crowds for Sounders home games that — no kidding — eclipse Premiere League attendance. The Premiere League is the the most watched sports league on the planet. But the Sounders have sold 66,800 tickets to see Clint Dempsey’s home debut on August 25. If the Sounders were in the Premiere League, their sell-out crowds would be the league’s second-largest, a few thousand behind Manchester United’s Old Trafford and a few thousand beyond Arsenal’s state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium. The atmosphere in that stadium as the Sounders take on their rivals, the Portland Timbers, will be electric. If Dempsey manages to score, they’re probably hear the roar in his home town of Nagogdoches, TX.
The atmosphere for the Dallas-Galaxy match Sunday night, while a more intimate-sized 18,000 but near its 20,500 capacity, was everything a soccer fan could want. FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco was close to full and knowledgeable fans cheered, shouted and hooted at the refs as the action warranted (well, except for the guy who shouted “Offside!” every single time the Galaxy scored. It was a half-hearted bleat after Donovan’s third, which looked like it would be the winner as it daisy-cut its way just inches inside the post.). There isn’t a bad seat in the house, its River City Club rivals any nightspot in the actual city of Dallas, and if you’re lucky enough to get seats in the north end you’re near the drum line that thumps its way through every home game. Or maybe it’s luckier to be near the mid-line on the west side below the club, where I was, and hear the band from afar.
But the fact that there is a band, just as there’s a lumberjack in Portland’s home stadium who chainsaws a tree after every home goal, and nearly 70,000 will be on hand to watch two American internationals start pushing the Sounders up the table on August 25, says a lot. The Galaxy came to Dallas off of defeating Italian giants Juventus in the inaugural International Champions Cup and finished fourth in a tournament that included Real Madrid and England’s Chelsea. Dallas is a football city that happens to have successful baseball, hockey and basketball teams. It also has a thriving soccer team that has supplied an American to the massive Premiere League, and can turn out a healthy, raucous crowd to watch the Hoops battle the Galaxy in the Texas August furnace.
Sunday night, in a game full of international players, the American Landon Donovan was easily the best player in action. His teammate, Irish captain and Premiere League veteran Robbie Keane, was anonymous for long stretches and grouchy toward the end. When Dallas’ Blas Perez tied the game for good near the final whistle, Keane looked like he might pop a vein while he argued with the ref, correctly as it turned out, that a Dallas player had been offside during the sequence leading up to the shot.
For the fans, though, it was a fantastic match. FC Dallas dominated for long stretches and led twice. The Hoops and the Galaxy both inched toward playoff spots with the draw. The fans got to see a heroic performance by Donovan, and a few just might have picked up a new addiction: the world’s sport, American style.