July 5, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Jerry Green

U.S. soccer team could have used a leader like shaggy-goateed troubadour of 20 years ago

Romario of Brazil battles with Birmingham's Alexi Lalas of the U.S. during a World Cup match on July 4, 1994. (Chris Cole / Getty Images)

Back in the dinosaur age when I was growing up, soccer was played only by boys whose parents refused to indulge them to play block-and-tackle American football.

Now to listen to television and read other media, soccer has become the rage.

The USA’s performance in the World Cup is being heralded as an overwhelming success.

It’s time — time again — invoke my second favorite word:

BALDERDASH! I am forbidden here to use my actual favorite word.

If winning one soccer football match, being tied in another and losing two others qualifies as success among American sports addicts, then we have fallen into the time of the terribly shameful.

But, well, say the excited in their red, white and blue regalia and painted faces mugging for the TV cameras at Brazil’s Copacabana Beach, Italy and Spain and England and Portugal were all ousted before us.

And because traditional European soccer nations are regarded as powerhouses, bully for the USA. The claim is made that we, the USA, were successful. At 1-1-2.

Not so proud!

Every time I see Alexi Lalas analyzing the current World Cup for ESPN, I endure my flashbacks of history. Back 20 years, a full generation. The USA had advanced from Group play into the second round for the first time since 1930. The Fourth of July 1994. On a soccer pitch at Stanford Stadium. The bright flash of yellow streaking in from the left. It remains fixed in my mind.

The yellow had nothing to do with courage. It was Bebeto, in his bright yellow jersey, scoring for Brazil.

Brazilian beaten

The final score, Brazil 1, USA nil.

And in defeat the soccer players of the USA had done our nation proud. Alexi Lalas, from Birmingham, Mich., among them. The face really of that 1994 World Cup American side with his shaggy red hair and red goatee and his engaging personality.

It was that World Cup — contested across our continent, suburban Detroit included — that popularized soccer among American youth. Girls and boys.

But 20 years later, the result was the same. We were knocked out in the second round. By Belgium, 2-1, in extra time.

The USA had emerged from the first round in the so-called Group of Death. The group was hardly that threatening.

The Americans had gone to Brazil trailed by two major controversies.

Landon Donovan was not picked for the USA side. Jurgen Klinsmann, the USA coach and former World Cup star for Germany, left Donovan disconsolate at home in California.

Donovan, said to be the best player ever produced in American soccer, had starred for the USA in three World Cups. He was a team leader and most productive scorer.

That snub would result in some sour grapes from Donovan toward Klinsmann in the aftermath of the USA’s demise vs. Belgium last Tuesday.

“The most disappointing thing is it didn’t seem like we gave it a real effort, from a tactical standpoint,” Donovan was quoted as saying on mls.com, the website of Major League Soccer.

He then added: “. . . “I don’t think we were set up to succeed.”

That is harsh criticism of a coach by shunned player. It has become a personality clash.

Klinsmann obviously does not like Donovan. And vice versa. Their sour relationship is now magnified by the USA’s results in Brazil.

Who's sorry now?

It is also obvious that the USA needed Landon Donovan’s leadership and game threat at the 2014 World Cup.

Stating this in the aftermath, Klinsmann goofed in that decision.

Klinsmann also goofed in his pre-tournament statement — later glossed over — that he did not believe the USA would do very well at World Cup, Brazil.

I guess he was right.

The USA beat Ghana. Then it suffered in a humiliating tie vs. Portugal, when the Portuguese scored the tying goal in the final minute of extra time due to a defensive lapse. This 2-2 tie had the emotional feeling of a defeat. Then the USA lost to Germany, but qualified anyway ahead of Portugal and Ghana into the second round.

And after the defeat by Belgium in Round 2, all those novice American soccer fans should wonder if it would have been different with Landon Donovan.

Donovan — though not too highly regarded as a player in Germany and England — has been America’s top player since he was a lad of 20.

At that age, in 2002, he led the USA had its best result ever in World Cup play. The USA reached the quarterfinals — the third round — in South Korea. Donovan had scored one of the two USA goals in the 2-0 second-round victory over Mexico.

The USA was one of eight survivors – then lost to Germany, 1-0, in the only quarterfinal match in American World Cup soccer history.

Four years ago in South Africa, the USA’s topped its group — by virtue of two ties and a victory. But then in a gripping match, with Donovan scoring a goal that was cheered by television viewers back home, the USA lost its second round game to Ghana, 2-1.

After that 2010 World Cup there was some belief that the USA was becoming more successful, a bit of a force, in world soccer football.

Now as the World Cup goes on in beautiful Brazil — with its beautiful beaches and beautiful people and too often not such beautiful crime — we are left to muse about the meaning of success in soccer.

To me, not much has changed since that Independence Day 20 years ago at Stanford. That Fourth of July, some American kids, without a pro league in the United States and mostly shunned by European clubs, played Brazil in a match that made us proud.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.

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