Thursday, July 05, 2007

Washington Nationals Show Potential; U.S. Nationals Do Not -- At RFK, on July 4th, I took in one of the Washington Nationals' best performances of this or any other season. Matt Chico delivered 7 strong, shutout innings. In fact, it was a little disappointing to see him removed from the game, as Saul Rivera took the mound to start the 8th inning. Chico should have had the chance to complete a shutout, but the Nationals are being protective of the young prospect -- at least, as protective as they can be, considering they threw this young Double-A ball pitcher to the wolves in the majors.

The Nats showed some of their potential before a robust crowd of over 39,000. Ryan Zimmerman stroked a two-strike first-inning home run, and Dmitri Young finished the scoring with a grand slam in the fifth inning, also coming with two strikes. Of course, Young isn't likely to be part of the Nationals' future. It's unlikely that he will finish the season with the Nationals, as some contending team is certain to offer the Nats a nice deal for the All-Star. Unlike last year's fiasco with Soriano, the Nationals will surely have more realistic expectations, so a trade for Young seems likely.

Zimmerman and Chico may be big parts of the Nats' future, so this memorable Independence Day victory may be a harbinger of future successes. With one exception, the Nats played excellent defense, including a fantastic, inning-ending, rally-killing diving catch by Nook Logan. All-in-all, this was a great effort, and really appreciated by the team's fans.

This contrasts with the performance by the other Nats -- the U.S. Men's National soccer team. Coming into the Copa America, everything coach Bob Bradley had touched seemed to turn to gold, including the victory in the Gold Cup, last month. For the Copa America, Bradley made a serious misjudgment in piecing together a squad that probably wouldn't even be the U.S.' "B" team. The U.S. team lacked real quality. Though some commentators suggested that the U.S. played much better than the results suggest (a 4-1 loss to Argentina, a 3-1 loss to Paraguay, and a 1-0 loss tonight to Colombia), they are overstating the level of the Americans' play. The U.S. might not look so terribly outmanned, and might even have the better of the possession, but the U.S. team lacked the quality and skills to create and finish enough scoring chances. They also give up too many good chances on the defensive end.

The real mistake here, though, is that Copa America officials are now justifiably upset at the lack of respect shown by Coach Bradley, in leaving the best American players off the roster for this tournament. One wonders if Bradley has jeopardized the chances of securing invites for the U.S. to future Copa America play. Moreover, the U.S. coach should be trying to instill confidence in American players and fans. We need good results. If the U.S. looks competitive now, we are more likely to see winning teams in the future. Results like those that the U.S. came home with from Venezuela will not encourage the growth of American soccer culture.

As for this team, goalie Brad Guzan turned in a decent game tonight, stopping a penalty shot, and making at least one brilliant save to deny a goal. Speedy, young Lee Nguyen came on as a late sub, and tracked back to deflect a seemingly certain goal. While the U.S. controlled the play for much of the second half, the U.S. really didn't threaten the net. There were chances to be sure, but the U.S. lacked the skill in the air to finish them. There were also numerous opportunities wasted by off-target shots, easily defended crosses right into the defense, and generally unproductive passing. The U.S. team out there tonight lacked the ability to deliver the kind of pinpoint passes that actually create real scoring opportunities. Similarly, when the passes were close to the mark, the U.S. attackers lacked the skill to score on headers, or to trap the passes and make something of the chance.

The worst moments for the U.S. actually came while the U.S. played with a man advantage, during the five additional minutes of stoppage time, added after the Colombian goalie received his second yellow of the game for time-wasting. I'd say the U.S. team looked amateurish during this stretch, but any Division I varsity squad should be expected to a do a better job with the ball, even against the Colombian national team. Despite having a man-advantage, and a field player defending the Colombian goal, the U.S. couldn't seem to piece together an attack, and gave the ball away twice in their defensive zone -- the first time came when one lone Colombian striker effectively chased the ball as it was loosely passed among three U.S. defenders. The Colombian kept the U.S. defenders from advancing the ball, before finally forcing the turnover. After the U.S. thwarted the ensuing attack, the team gave the ball away again, this time inside their own defensive box. This was not a moment to instill confidence or pride.

Currently, the U.S does have a few players with world-class skills, most notably Landon Donovan. The U-20 team may add a few to that number, including Jozey Altidore, and Feddy Adu. However, it is clear that the U.S. does not have an especially deep talent pool. The next generation, headed by players like Adu and Altidore may change that, but it's far from clear at this point. The U-20 team bears serious watching. They take on Brazil tomorrow, and they have to be considered a real contender for the title, after thrashing Poland 6-1.

I saw a taste of the more distant future this past weekend. I attended some of the Region One championship games for the US Youth Soccer organization. This is where the travel teams from all across the Northeast come together to produce one team at each age group to compete in the national championship in Frisco, Texas. The Region One tournament was held in Maine this year. I came to watch my niece's team (actually, two of my nieces' teams qualified, but one of my nieces had other plans). Mostly, I watched girls' soccer. I have to say that there were some excellent players, and some teams that played terrific combination play. They knew where to pass the ball and they knew where to run when teammates controlled the ball. A few players showed some real touch with the ball, and accuracy with their passes and shots. In fact, they looked better, at times, than the U.SA. Men's team did this past week.

I also got to meet Tab Ramos. I've been a huge fan of his, ever since I sat in the stands in Florence, during the 1990 World Cup. While most of Tab's teammates played scared, looking to make safe passes, usually backwards, the instant they touched the ball -- Tab tried attacking the Austrian and Czech defenses. He provided the real thrills for the American fans, during otherwise desultory efforts. Of course, I was nervous in meeting Tab, and tripped over my words, but I thanked him for his efforts in Italy.

Tab was there coaching a team -- his son, Alex, was on Matawan, New Jersey's U-13 boys' team. They were undefeated in group play, and won the region championship by routing the Olney (Md.) Rangers 4-0 in the final (Alex's team outscored their opponents 22-1). There is no national championship at that age level. Tab didn't seem to do much coaching, as he spent the game seated on a soccer ball. However, his team was clearly very well drilled. As the level of American coaching improves at lower levels, one hopes the level of play will continue to improve as the players make their way up through the ranks. For now, that is the hope of American soccer -- until it supplants the other sports as the major playground sport, and our kids develop world-class skills on their own.

There is some good youth soccer being played in this country -- the question is how good? How will these kids compare against international competition as they move into senior level play? I think American girls are still ahead of their international competition. Are the boys catching up with their competition? I guess it will be fun watching to find out.

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