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[By Prof. William Birdthistle:] The inheritance of victory

A fan of the U.S. national soccer team celebrates his team’s victory during a live broadcast of the soccer World Cup match between the Unites States and Ghana, inside the FIFA Fan Fest area on Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, June 16, 2014. Clint Dempsey scored in the first minute and rookie substitute John Brooks scored a late game winner as the U.S. defeated Ghana 2-1 in the World Cup opener for both. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Ever since America’s dramatic 2-1 win over Ghana at the World Cup, an impressive number of fans have been looking for causes to mourn.  Commenters have twisted knickers over the style of America’s defensive play; several have lamented the number of clearances by Tim Howard and the defense; and some have even called the victory Pyrrhic because of the loss of Jozy Altidore.  I applaud these morbid reactions as evidence that followers of the team are getting into the true spirit of soccer.

As a Liverpool fan, I gnashed and wailed over each one of their many recent successes for fear of the inevitable collapse that was to come.  The fall did come, so all my pessimism was amply rewarded.  But allow me to try to defend the celebration of America’s victory.

Count 1: Playing defensively.  Yes, America adopted a defensive crouch against Ghana.  My suspicion is that this approach was due not to their failure as soccer players but to the fact that they were winning the game.  Nations like the Netherlands and Germany have the luxury of piling forward against inferior opposition — indeed, it’s something of an irrepressible Teutonic instinct — but America was not playing an inferior team: Ghana had knocked the U.S. out of the past two World Cups and clearly plays with a style that causes America problems.  America also boasts a fantastic goalkeeper and a stout and athletic array of defenders, so defense is something the team does well.  What were the alternatives?  Blundering forward into counterattacking ambushes didn’t seem like a reasonable approach.  Mastering the art of tiki-taka on a hot Brazilian evening and passing Ghana into submission might have been the ideal approach — alas, the American roster does not include the Barcelona midfield from three years ago.

Count 2: Clearing a lot.  Yes, America cleared the ball a lot.  Presumably letting the ball into the goal more would have been a flawed alternative.  Another would have been to pass the ball out, which certainly would have been preferable.  But, again, one goes to the World Cup with the team one has … minus Landon Donovan.  In a close match, a narrow lead imposes a powerful psychological need simply to survive.  Lots of very good soccer teams with one-goal leads collapse into over-40 duffers in the final minutes of a tight game.  America may have gotten sloppy a little early in the evening, but their mental approach changed immediately upon relinquishing the lead.  In fact, the most impressive thing about this victory was how aggressive America was following Ghana’s equalizer — clinging on for a draw is common in those circumstances.  But America pushed forward and produced a dream winner.

Count 3: Playing Pyrrhus.  The unspoken premise in dismissing this victory as Pyrrhic is the idea that the trophy is waiting for America to collect it, if only the team can stay healthy in the meantime.  I — and Jürgen Klinsmann — think not.  For America, there is no meantime: winning games is what the tournament is all about.  Tying or losing to Ghana would have been far more costly than losing Altidore.  How could America have avoided losing Altidore?  By not playing him.  Or perhaps by asking him not to run fast.

America could hardly be in a better position in this tournament.  Having won their opener, they now face their second-strongest opponent at its weakest: Portugal’s resident lunatic is disqualified from a red card; it has other great players out from injury; and its confidence may be in tatters following German demolition.  America will face its strongest opponent hopefully at its least interested: if Germany beats Ghana, then it will have already advanced when it plays America and thus may be looking to rest stars to avoid injury or yellow card suspensions.  If America can win or tie one of those two matches, they will be likely to advance — and they will have conjured the unqualified victory of escaping the Group of Hyperbole.



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Eugene Volokh · June 18, 2014

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