Is American Soccer Coming of Age?
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.