The plucky, over-archiving Irish. The hard-working, underdog Yanks. Even among those of us who make a living spewing these tropes, there’s recognition that narratives are a poor interpretation of what happens on the field. Yet Tuesday’s game – the final one in a busy year for the U.S. men’s national team – presents a clash of walking, talking stereotypes. Few teams in international soccer are more readily typecast than the Republic of Ireland, Tuesday’s host, and the United States.
In soccer terms, these two nations share a number of parallels, both having become quite comfortable looking out at the world from inside Cinderella’s slipper. Each country has found its greatest successes on the world stage by overcoming the proverbial odds, banding together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and so on.
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For “The Boys in Green,” the delirious feat of qualifying for their firstWorld Cup in 1990 was swiftly followed by assignment to a group that included both the Netherlands and rival England. But Ireland, a humble nation of less than five million souls – so short on talent that the team was, and in many ways still is, built mainly from professional players among its massive expatriate population in Great Britain – made it through to the knockout stages, a step ahead of the Dutch to boot.
That and subsequent achievements were greeted as upset victories for what’s depicted as a overmatched country. As such, relatively few quibbles have been raised with Ireland’s recent dour, defensive tactics — tools seen as necessary in this particular episode of “Mission: Impossible,” one which comfortably nest in the identity of a people accustomed to centuries of poverty and invasion. (Google “Boys in Green” and “plucky,” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Geopolitically, the United States hasn’t really been able to relate to that mindset in a century or two, but for decades, the beautiful game hasn’t come easily to this country in terms of national team results. Reaching the aforementioned 1990 World Cup was an even more unexpected achievement for the U.S. than it was Ireland, and ever since that squad of college kids was sent to get ritually disemboweled, the U.S. has labored to make up ground on the rest of the world, with modest but promising results.
A quarter-century of steady progress has now brought us to the realization that the team has ascended into the top 20 or so members of soccer’s elite, but U.S. Soccer still only harnesses a fraction of its full resources.
A team assembled from a strange mixture of homegrown grafters and flashy dual-national imports survived what some considered a group of death in Brazil, but it did so mainly with hard running, fighting spirit and inspired goalkeeping – not all that different from what those hopeless kids showed back in 1990. They certainly made the nation proud, and represented what we collectively consider to be our best nature: Resilient, humble, straightforward. North America’s huge Irish-American diaspora surely nods its head in familiar approval.
That’s an archetype the Irish know all too well, and mindful of their limitations, they generally struggle to embrace anything too far from it. But it’s going to take something more to win a World Cup, which is the logical endgame for the planet’s richest and third-most populous nation.
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As U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati repeatedly reminds us, the guiding philosophy behind Jurgen Klinsmann’s hiring was to nudge the program into that top tier. This will be achieved not only by goosing more out of the current player pool, but by overhauling the domestic system so future talent crops are both bigger and better than those that came before. The federation still struggles to capture anywhere near the full scope of our country’s talent, and its youth development system remains in its relative infancy.
This is a transformation that’s bigger than one coach, or one World Cup cycle, or even one generation of players. It also requires the body politic of American soccer to set aside some well-worn old self-identifications, which can be uncomfortable.
What if the U.S. is not the lovable ‘dogs any more? What if it takes not merely the Karate Kid, but an entire Cobra Kai dojo to win it all? What if anything short of “sweeping the leg” is a grievous, shameful failure of weakness? Grabbing the brass ring means no more Cinderella story.
Ireland lives within a glass slipper because it more or less has to, but the United States hangs on to a similar pretext because it’s ideologically expedient. Today, however, that pretext is at conflict with U.S. Soccer’s goals, preventing the program from confronting the task ahead.