July 19, 2011 2:14:00 PM
All is not lost.
Soccer will have life in this country after the United States'' women''s National Team lost to Japan in penalty kicks Sunday in the World Cup title game in Germany.
The penalty kick shootout is the most agonizing way to lose a game, but its precision goes to the heart of why soccer is so popular around the world and has yet to capture and to hold the U.S. attention.
Sometimes teams will bunker in and gamble they''ll be able to absorb pressure through regulation and overtime to get to PKs. Others, like the U.S. and Japan on Sunday, will continue to attack and to take chances in hopes of creating their luck and getting a result.
The decision by the U.S. women not to pull back and to play more conservatively might have cost it a championship. But the defensive lulls it suffered on Japan''s two goals are more to blame for the heartbreaking defeat. The breakdowns -- a failed clearance on the first goal and a lost assignment on the second -- cost the U.S. women a chance to recapture some of the magic the 1999 team brought to the country in another round of penalty kicks.
Brandi Chastain''s goal and the celebration that followed was a landmark moment for the sport. Buoyed by "soccer moms" and "soccer dads" everywhere, the U.S. women capitalized on the media spotlight and used the momentum to create a professional league. That league -- the WUSA -- failed and has been replaced by Women''s Professional Soccer, which also is working to carve out a niche.
The U.S. men are working toward that goal, too. Claudio Reyna, the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, feels the advent of more attacking soccer at younger levels will help players grow to levels that will help the U.S. Men''s National Team compete with the other elite nations.
That is part of the solution.
Reyna is right in that the U.S. needs a "real collective plan" that helps it take the "real big steps to catch up with the rest of the world." His coaching curriculum for U.S. Soccer addresses a plan for reaching that goal. At nearly 100 pages, it stresses the need for quick one- to two-touch passing and attacking, much like the style of play used by the most beautiful teams in Europe.
For this plan to be effective, coaches of all levels need to buy in and learn the techniques to teach creative and attacking soccer. Too often teams are encouraged to play destructive soccer, or kick ball, where they don''t attempt to keep the ball or to build an attack.
That''s part of the reason why the sport has failed to gain traction in this country.
But attacking soccer isn''t a panacea. Soccer''s artistry is based in a team''s adaptability and ingenuity. It''s easiest when there are one or two players who can take on a defense and pinpoint a shot into the upper corner of the net from 25 yards or more. Those players are the exception, and their skills should be highlighted and emulated.
Soccer, though, works best when 11 players are thinking alike. They anticipate plays and use the open space on the field to their advantage. They dissect angles in training and try again and again to get just the right touch on a pass or a volley so they will be ready to deliver when they''re needed in a game. They realize there is a time to attack and a time to probe and to try different tactics to stretch and then break down a defense.
That level of perfection takes time, which is part of the reason the U.S. is still playing catch-up. For too long, our country has accepted a "blue-collar" or "workmanlike" approach to the game in which our players rely more on outworking an opponent that outthinking or outmaneuvering them.
That has to change.
It''s time for soccer coaches at every level to invest in attacking, thinking soccer. Reyna makes a great point when he says too many youth coaches are focused on winning and losing. Player development should be the most important element, and an attacking mentality shouldn''t be the only lesson in that curriculum. Learning how to stay organized, following a game plan, reading tendencies of players and teams and using those things to your advantage, and seeing the space and the angles on a field all should be other aspects coaches of all ages include in their training.
There''s no reason why the U.S. can''t continue its success on the women''s side and our men''s national team can''t reach similar heights. It''s going to take a change of heart and a change in attitude and thinking for our country to get there. We should demand more from our coaches. Our players should aspire to do what the great players do.
All is not lost. We can get there if we learn to attack and to adapt and to look at the big picture.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: [email protected]