By Peter Alegi | November 16th, 2010 4 Comments
The year of Africa’s first World Cup is coming to an end. Tomorrow I am headed to Cape Town with my family for the South Africa – United States match at Green Point stadium. It’s a friendly branded as the Nelson Mandela Challenge — all proceeds go to the Mandela Children’s Fund.
A couple of days ago Rodney Reiners of the Cape Argus contacted me and Anders Kelto, an American reporter and former Under-17 US national team captain, for some insights on American soccer to share with South African readers in the build-up to the match. Here’s the interview in full:
Rodney Reiners: What should South Africans know about the establishment and rise of the MLS?
PA: Major League Soccer is a legacy of the 1994 World Cup. It kicked off in 1996 and marked the resurrection of professional soccer in the USA after the demise of the North American Soccer League in 1985. (There were some other attempts at pro soccer in between the NASL and MLS but nothing terribly noteworthy.) I was at the first final at Foxboro Stadium in ’96 with 30,000 mad people in a torrential rain of biblical proportions. It ended 3-2 on a golden goal for DC United: incredible stuff. This league, it seemed to me, was going places. The NASL’s collapse a decade earlier influenced the MLS’s decision to have centralized ownership of player contracts (that is, the league owns contracts not the clubs); to not over-expand the number of teams (we now have 16); make the league more “American” and not overly dependent on over-the-hill foreign stars.
AK: And to prevent the kind of imbalances that doomed the NASL. The New York Cosmos bought the world’s most famous players and drew huge crowds, but just about every other team struggled on the field, and financially.
PA: That’s a very good point Anders. I should add that the commitment of several large corporate sponsors and multi-year TV contracts helped keep MLS afloat in the difficult early years and also legitimized it. Today, MLS competes with ice hockey as the best professional league in the country after The Big Three (NFL, MLB, NBA). That’s a significant achievement and it’s sustainable in the long term.
RR: How do you rate the current standard of football in the MLS?
PA: I would rate the standard of MLS game at about the fourth tier of English football (League 2). With some exceptions, many of the clubs emphasize old school British styles of play, emphasizing direct play, high tempo, hard tackling at the expense of more tactically sophisticated, possession oriented game. Tactically, the American game leaves a lot to be desired.
AK: Peter is being harsh! Stylistically, the MLS leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not particularly appealing soccer to watch, and certainly when compared to the world’s top leagues. But American club teams have actually fared quite well in international competitions. I would say they are comparable in ability — not style — to the top South American leagues, and to the second-tier European leagues.
RR: What are your thoughts on US soccer in general?
PA: Soccer is the most played sport in America at the youth level: more than baseball, basketball, and gridiron football. It is popular among boys and girls, men and women, and exists in two distinct forms: suburban and mostly white on the one hand; urban and immigrant Latin, African, and Middle Eastern on the other. The country will become a big-time contender in 15-20 years if the Americans devise a way to combine these two “traditions.”
AK: The U.S. has immense financial resources and a lot of capable people trying to figure out how to develop better players. A case in point is the new Academy system that U.S. Soccer launched a few years ago [formerly known as Project 40]. But the fundamental problem in the US is that there just isn’t enough money in the game, because there isn’t enough public interest. That said, this past World Cup set all sorts of soccer records for viewership, and supposedly ESPN invested more resources in the 2010 World Cup than in any other sporting event in history.
RR: What do you think of the US national team and its coach Bob Bradley?
PA: The US national team is now steadily in the world’s top 25. This success comes primarily from having participated in every World Cup tournament since 1990 and from the emergence of quality players who play professionally in the English Premier League and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in the MLS. But Bob Bradley should consider himself lucky to have had his contract recently renewed for four more years. The 2010 World Cup exposed his lack of tactical acumen and poor team selection.
AK: I disagree with Peter on this point. I think Bradley’s team selections were generally good, and that he recognized when he made mistakes and quickly corrected them (like starting Robbie Findlay in the first game [against England], and Ricardo Clark in the last game [against Ghana]). Could he have done better? Yes. But most of his selections and substitutions at the World Cup were good, and the team’s performance under his four years has been strong.
PA: Soccer is subjective so it’s good to have different perspectives on things. But after the US World Cup loss to Ghana in the round of 16 there were many Americans hoping that the United States Soccer Federation would sack Bradley and make Jurgen Klinsmann the coach of the national team. What a missed opportunity!
AK: In fact, the word on the street is that US Soccer took a very long time to renew Bradley’s contract (he was left in limbo for many weeks after the World Cup) because they were trying like crazy to woo Klinnsman.
RR: Who are the key US players?
PA: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard. Sadly, none of them will play against South Africa in Cape Town. “This game is a good opportunity to look at some different players and assess their place in the pool as we continue to build for the next cycle,” Bradley said.
AK: I agree those are the big three players. Jermaine Jones has apparently done quite well since “converting” to an American, too.
RR: Who will win the Nelson Mandela Challenge and why?
PA: South African pride and dynamism against American physicality and organization will produce a 1-1 draw. If they go to penalties, then it’s a lottery.
AK: In keeping with their World Cup tradition, the U.S. will give up an early goal and come back to win 2-1, through sheer energy, determination, and fitness. One thing about U.S. international games–they are almost always full of defensive mistakes (by both teams), and often make for exciting, if not elegant, contests.
Here are the squads:
Goalkeepers: Itumeleng Khune (Kaizer Chiefs), Moeneeb Josephs (Orlando Pirates)
Defenders: Morgan Gould (SuperSport United), Siboniso Gaxa (Lierse), Tsepo Masilela (Maccabi Haifa), Siyabonga Sangweni (Golden Arrows), Anele Ngconca (Racing Genk), Bevan Fransman (Hapoel Tel Aviv), Siyanda Xulu (Mamelodi Sundowns), Keegan Ritchie (Moroka Swallows)
Midfielders: Teko Modise, Andile Jali (both Pirates), Siphiwe Tshabalala, Reneilwe Letsholonyane (both Chiefs), Steven Pienaar (Everton), Thanduyise Khuboni (Arrows), Daylon Claasen (Lierse), Matthew Pattison (Sundowns), Kagisho Dikgacoi (Fulham)
Strikers: Sthembiso Ngcobo (Chiefs), Kermit Erasmus (SuperSport United), Davide Somma (Leeds United), Bernard Parker (FC Twente)
Goalkeepers: Dominic Cervi (Celtic), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa)
Defenders: Gale Agbossoumonde (Estoril Praia), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls), Jonathan Spector (West Ham)
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Orebro), Brian Carroll (Columbus Crew), Mikkel Diskerud (Stabaek), Eddie Gaven (Columbus Crew), Logan Pause (Chicago Fire), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew)
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Teal Bunbury (Kansas City Wizards), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake)