SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Not 1, Not 2. . . Certainly Not 7 -- What LeBron James Also Implied

The decision -- rather, the announcement of it -- was ill-advised.  A hard-working, earnest guy did the wrong thing, alienated an area he loved and went off to a glamorous place for glory that he helped create.  No one really argued with the substance of the decision -- competitive people want to go to places where they can succeed.  So, it wasn't the what, it was the how.

This time around, the how was great -- a humble article about how the self-described (see his Twitter handle) King James was returning to his hometown, a place with real meaning for him, and a place where most people his age move away from in order to find opportunity instead of moving back there.  The reasoning was sound -- he wants to give back to his area, he wants to raise his kids in that area, and he wants to bring a championship back to an area starved for good news.  He preached patience, but after 11 seasons of wear-and-tear on his body, it's hard to know how much of his elite tread remains before people might start talking about him the way they are talking about Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant now, that they used to be among the greatest but now they cannot strap a team to their backs anymore.

James's seemingly magnanimous decision -- and to a degree it is -- also is a concession that in continuing to build his brand he cannot out-Michael Jordan Michael Jordan and eclipse The Greater Player Ever's six titles in the modern era.  He alluded to the possibility of seven titles during a longer Miami tenure than actually will have taken place, but by moving back to Cleveland he's finessed the comparison.  Because if he delivers on a single championship in Cleveland, he'll both have played on elite stage elsewhere and won a few titles but also will have brought a title back to an area that hasn't won one in a very long time.  That Michael could not do.

But it's also a concession that he won't win seven titles, won't come close, won't come close not only to Bill Russell (who is in a category of his own) but also Jordan and perhaps even Tim Duncan of the Spurs, whose outstanding career gets eclipsed because he's been, well, the best team player since number 6 laced them up for the Celtics decades before the internet and instance media and instant messaging took root.  No, that's not the story, it's about good, old American values juxtaposed next to a max contract (note to fans, Duncan's contract for 2014-2015 calls for $10 million in salary, leaving plenty of money left over for teammates whose talents warrant good contracts).  It's about King James, but not an autocratic king but a benevolent one, letting his loyal subjects warm to him once more and get closer to the aura of his greatness because after years conquering far away lands he's bringing it all home.

LeBron is one of the greatest players ever.  I'm not sure he is the greatest, but when you are that good and in the top of the pantheon what does it really matter?  By coming home to Cleveland he's coming full circle, righting a wrong that was more because of how he delivered a message than what he said, by setting an example that you can win at home and help revitalize people's thinking about an area that you hold dear.  It's a great public relations story, and it's a "feel good" story as well.  LeBron, after all, seems to be a pretty good guy.

But it's also a branding and business decision, one that the LeBron acolytes in the sports media -- who depend on him for access and stories -- aren't necessarily covering because they love being in the aura and they love the "Disney Sports Movie" aspect to this, so much ask that they might be a little weepy.  The other story is "LeBron Conceded He is No Michael Jordan."

And that might not be such a bad thing.  Michael is perhaps the most competitive person on the planet, and perhaps ever.  There are good and bad sides to that.  So while James is saying that he's giving up on competing with Michael, he also might be saying that you don't always build your brand by winning all the time.  That's something that Michael Jordan would never do or admit.  By implying this through his actions, LeBron James is saying that his brand is more than just about basketball and winning.  It's about both those things and a community greater than the NBA and the basketball world.  It's not clear whether he'll pull that off, but right now, that's his message.

And it's working.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Whither Wimbledon?

The tennis is good.

The setting is historic.

The commentators seem good.

But how many people are watching?

It's amazing how television coverage and sports coverage has progressed almost to the point that you can catch almost any game you want to at any time.  That phenomenon seemingly has had two results -- one to dilute the viewership for all but the most compelling events (e.g., the World Cup) and to reduce the appeal of the tennis majors because my so-called scarcity factor has evaporated.  As for the latter, when there were seven television channels (and the dreaded UHF channels had trouble staying in focus on perhaps carried only your local baseball team), we watched Wimbledon in part because there wasn't much else covered on TV at the time.  True, there were compelling figures, but the network that covered tennis made them all the more compelling because there wasn't nearly as much to watch on TV.  Today, with much more choice -- including sports that appeal to bigger groups of people -- tennis has become almost an afterthought.

Is it because there isn't a good crop of Americans outside the Williams' sisters, who are near or at the end of their run?  Is it because with the advances in technology there isn't as much drama in the "smash and volley" tennis that there was when the points were longer?  Is it because so many players cycle through that it's hard to develop a following for any one particular player?  Or is it because the game is as good as it ever was, but other sports have surpassed it?  My guess is that it's a combination of the two.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Key for USA Soccer: Believe That You Can Play the Full 90 Plus Stoppage Time. . . and You Can Win

I've frequently thought that any team in the same league or tournament can stay with another team for about 75-80 minutes.  Between the pressure, the advance talk, the weather, injuries, who's fit, who's in form and the like, underdogs can hang with the favorites for a long time.  But what the Round of 16 has demonstrated thus far in the World Cup has been that it's what happens after that that distinguishes who advances from who goes home.  And in all instances, it's been the favorite that has advanced.

The U.S. should take note of this fact as it enters its game against favored Belgium, which won its group, tomorrow.  The U.S. almost tasted disaster in its game against Portugal by failing to play intensely for the entire game -- the Americans outplayed Portugal for almost the whole game, only to suffer a defensive lapse within thirty seconds of the game's end that caused a game in which they had all but earned a victory and the precious three points that came with it into a tie and some serious doubt about whether they would advance at all.  If that game didn't bring home the message to the U.S. that they have to sprint through the finish line, many games in the Round of 16 have.

The Dutch were on the verge of going home going into the late minutes in their game against Mexico.  Perhaps the favored Orange had swelled heads.  After all, they were overlooked in the Group Stage, only to emerge as the most likely of any Round of 16 grouping of four to advance (thanks to Spain's surprise exit).  The Mexicans had a good tournament, but in the 88th minute the Dutch scored to tie it, and then they scored the game-winner in stoppage time (okay that was controversial, but it was what it was).  I am sure that many members of the Mexican team wish they had the last two minutes or so of that game to play again.

Fast forward to today, when the heavily favored Germans continued to fail convert excellent changes against Algeria.  The game went to Extra Time, and finally the Germans scored and then scored again.  Valiant play by the Algerian goalkeeper kept the game close, but the Algerians failed to create many chances.  Perhaps it was a case of the better team wearing the underdog down, but the Algerians failed to get it done.  That's probably not as good an example as is the Netherlands-Mexico contest, but outside the French, the favorites all had tough games.

I remain convinced that the U.S. should attack the Belgians early and hard.  True, the Belgians are playing a confounding (for fans) conservative style that has proved to be the best defense against striker Romelu Lukaku that the promising young striker has seen all  year -- his own team's strategy has taken him out of the game.  It would be easy for the U.S. to play into this strategy, play possum, and only take what the Belgians give, but that would be a mistake.  That would mean that the U.S. would agree to keep the ball stuck at midfield and not attack.  If that's the case, count on the Red Devils to awaken in the middle of the second half, push the throttle on their idling engine, and push ahead hard and score a decisive goal.  The Belgians have won all three of their games in this fashion

The problem with a "hang with the Belgians" strategy is that the favorites typically have more at the end to win -- better penalty takers, players who are more creative, players with more stamina, and they figure out a way to win.  Instead, the U.S. should consider hitting a relatively tentative and uncoordinated Belgian team with an aggressive strategy early.  True, they might risk a few long balls over the top of defensive lines that are moved up, but they also might create more chances and bloody the nose of the Red Devils.  Score early, and the U.S. will throw a wrench into the Belgian engine from which Belgium might not be able to recover.  

All that said, the U.S. needs to ensure that it plays in top form in the last ten minutes of the game, especially if they are ahead or the game is tied.  Take the extra run, challenge the extra pass, make the extra play -- each of those things could make a crucial difference in the game's outcome.  That's what seemingly is distinguishing the teams that are advancing -- they have more left in the tank at the end, and they can close out the game and win.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Something Major League Baseball Should Worry About

My rising 9th grader is an active kid, has lots of friends, plays sports, is knowledgeable about them.  When he was little, he played baseball for a while, but also played flag football, football, basketball and lacrosse before settling on rec league soccer,  basketball and lacrosse.  Baseball had become too slow and too rife with fathers acting like Major League managers and playing their sons at key positions.   Even going to Phillies games because a bit much -- it stopped being a lot of fun when you were watching an aging, less motivated team of overpaid stars in blistering heat for three and a half hours.  There was too little action, and the play stopped being as good as it once was.  I also suppose that as kids grow, they make their own choices.  It's part of growing up, figuring out your own interests and realizing that it's okay not to have the same ones as your father.  Quite the opposite, many kids find out that parents will help them develop their new interests and take them to games and events that are outside their comfort zone.  Perhaps the adults might even enjoy it.

We had a conversation the other day about what the kids talk about in gym, at lunch, before class starts and in the hallways.  In the fall, they talk about soccer and football, in the winter about basketball and soccer and in the spring about basketball and soccer and the NFL draft.  And then the NBA draft.  March Madness can loom largely too.  Absent, though, from the discussions, is baseball.

The national pastime, baseball.  The sport whose games can take three hours and fifteen minutes with the ball in play only 15 minutes of every game.  The sport where players do things most of us cannot do -- throw a ball over ninety miles and hour and hit a ball that is coming at you at that speed.  The sport that takes a lot of kids to play if you ever were able to play pick-up games.  The sport that your grandfather and father might have played, and where your father tells stories about different games he went to with his father.

Before video games.  Before the internet.  Before access to an endless amount of games on television.  Before the players thickened and look like tight ends or middle linebackers.  Before steroids.  Before the blind eye was turned toward steroids.  Before scandals about whether steroid era players should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Major League Baseball should be very worried about this.  Seeds that might finally grow into mighty oaks are being planted in this country for soccer to take off.  The game moves.  Great athletes of all nations play it, making it a truly international game.  You know if you watch a game it will be over about two hours after you turn on the television or go to the stadium.   The English Premiership had a great debut on NBC Sports Channel.  ESPN"s coverage of the World Cup is extraordinarily good.  Ian Darke is an ace in the booth for the U.S. games.  The U.S. team has advanced to the knockout round for the second World Cup in a row and has a reasonable chance to defeat a young Belgian team.  The bar lounge discussions at the end of a day were excellent -- Roberto Martinez has been great, as have Michael Ballack, Ruud van Nistelroy, Julie Foudy, Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas.  The latter might irk some people, but he's knowledgeable and he doesn't pull his punches.  All in all, a huge celebration of soccer.

And there's also the influence of the internet and video games.  As to the latter, EA Sports FIFA game is among the world's most popular, far outselling any MLB game.  Kids learn who the players are by playing all sorts of matches on FIFA, and they buttress that information with what they read on the internet.  FIFA is perhaps the most fun sports video game to play, and its sales the first five days after its release were through the roof.  Even in the US., where you see more and more kids wearing soccer jerseys.

Forty years ago, the five most popular sports in the US were baseball, football, basketball, boxing and horse racing (the latter because it was the only place you could place a legal bet outside Las Vegas).  Horse racing has fallen off, as has boxing.  Tennis surged when you had raw, real characters like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and before cable TV gave you access to so many games at the same time.  But then tennis faded as the individualists left the game and as the equipment has improved to the point that you can smash a hard-to-return serve and volley a weak return into a winner.  American football is now the most popular game in the U.S., and basketball remains strong, with March Madness drawing big ratings.  Baseball remains popular, but it doesn't draw great on television (witness the ratings for many of the most recent World Series) and it moves slowly.  I'm not arguing that it's headed for our popular culture's version of the tar pits, where people will go to Cooperstown in 50 years and say, "How could this game have been so popular, only the Ivy League still plays it?"  But what I am saying is that sometimes organizations make decisions when they're riding high that can help render them obsolete.

American football has surpassed baseball (and it, too, has some significant issues about its future given the damage that players suffer from playing the game and how that damage can shorten their lives or dramatically affect the quality of life after football), and soccer is threatening it.  The NBA just celebrated a great season, his likable stars, and college basketball remains strong.  Baseball still holds out there, benefitting from good weather, nice parks and a place where generations have gone to watch their teams.  But soccer will pinch it if it hasn't already, and if it hasn't already, it's a growing wave that will threaten the marginal dollars that people use to spend on sports.  There are many good things about baseball, to be sure, but as with all industries and economies, there are phenomena out there that can surge fast and threaten its prosperity if not its existence.

The Lords of Baseball should look at the rise of soccer very seriously.  American football already has eclipsed it in popularity, and soccer might soon too.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Philadelphia 76ers Want You to Buy the Seat You'll Never Sit In

Ah, we yearn for the glory days, of Doc and the Boston Strangler, Moses and Bobby Jones and even Lovetron and World.  The 76ers won, they packed the joint, the place was electric.  More so, believe it or not, then when AI tried to will a team chock full of lesser talents and a strategy rife with clearouts to a title.  At one point, fans really knew that Moses and Doc would win.  With AI, there was profound hope, but hope was all it was, because it was not realistic to think that they could beat the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe (then again, had they not run out of gas in Game 2 of the 2000 finals and held on to win, they would have been up two zip on LA with three games to follow in Philadelphia.)

The title to this post reflects a clever ad campaign the team came up with during Doc's tenure.  A deep narrator's voice said that line and then the video clips were of highlights that would stand up today.  And, in nearly all of them, fans were standing and cheering.  It was a clever use of suggestion and the fans' inference, and it seemed to have worked.  Fans purchased those tickets, and they did stand a lot.

Fast forward until today, where the 76ers will still try to sell you tickets.  Buy even a few on-line or from the box office, and an earnest person from the ticket office will call you to entice you to purchase a season ticket (which, by the way, is hardly worth what you could get for it on StubHub, where discerning fans wait until late to purchase your face value ticket for a steep discount because losing teams do not draw).  The ticket sellers are earnest young people, and this year they've been hung out to dry.  Last season, fans knew that they had to be patient for the return of Nerlens Noel and the 2014 draft.  Going into the draft, fans were hoping that the team would get some guys (read:  Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, a shooting guard or a power forward) that could come in and help. 

And they didn't get it.  Which means that the front office gave the ticket office absolutely zilch to work with.  Noel?  Perhaps.  But two second-round picks with first-round talent according to Jay Bilas?  No Randle, no Smart, no McDermott.  Just (perhaps) some hope for the (not so close) future.  Which means that the ticket office is going to try to sell people seats that they don't want to sit in.   And they'll want you to keep purchasing that ticket for years. 

Until Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel have more experience.  Until Joel Embiid is healthy.  Until Dario Saric comes to the U.S. to play.  Until the other foreign players do likewise, and until the 76ers reap the harvest that could be the 2015 NBA draft and whoever their lottery pick might be.  And that could be a long time. 

Of course, they do hope that you'll sit in your seat and have the occasion to leave your feet to cheer the hometown team.  But that supposes that you, the hypothetical good fan, buys into what Josh Harris and Sam Hinkie are selling and will continue to do so.  And why would you do that if you could pick off tickets for a few games on StubHub, on a special four-game package, or get them from friends.

It's not that the Philadelphia 76ers want you to buy the seat that you'll never sit in.  It's that they're a bit more desperate than that -- they're hoping that you'll want to come into the building and sit at all. 

"Winless for Wiggins" was one thing.  "Patience for More Players" is quite another.  The fans waited one year; now it looks like they might have to wait two or three more.  Meanwhile, the team will finish 20-62, a panoply of guys who should be playing in the D-League will cycle through the roster, Brett Brown will talk about intensity until he is hoarse, but it all will not matter that much.  What fans had hoped would be a palliative and a bridge to a better future turned into a bridge with a much longer span (and perhaps a crack in one of the bridge supports). 

The Philadelphia 76ers want you to buy a seat.  Any seat.  Any seat at all.

They should remember that their D-League team is in Delaware, just down I-95 -- and that's where the D-League worthy players should go, playing for D-League ticket prices.  They shouldn't be peddling a somewhat stepped-up version of the same product about 40 miles north for NBA prices. 

Soccer Jingoism Only Can Go So Far

I find it difficult to get euphoric after my team loses a game and gets outplayed across the board while doing it.  Yet, many USA fans were jubilant after the US soccer team's 1-0 loss to Germany, but only because a) they didn't lose by a bigger margin, b) Portugal didn't beat Ghana by a bigger margin and c) because of a) and b), the U.S. advanced to the knockout round of the World Cup.  Those fans would argue that the overall results in the three-team round robin in their group were great because many didn't expect the U.S. to beat Ghana (even though for the most part they were outplayed), to draw Portugal (even though they outplayed Portugal and should have won) or, okay, beat or draw Germany.  But by doing what they did, the U.S. escaped "this group of death" and have moved onto the next round.

I could imagine the euphoria had the team played like Costa Rica, which also was in its own group of death with Italy, Uruguay and England.  Los Ticos played better than the U.S., shocked everyone, and two of the world's soccer superpowers are going home.  But by backing in to advance, the U.S. just couldn't get that type of glee from me.  Am I happy that they advanced?  Sure.  Is it a great accomplishment?  Relatively speaking, yes.  For U.S. soccer, it's worth celebrating.  But I doubt that the average fan of Brazil, Germany, Argentina or the Netherlands goes into orbit when it's team makes it to the knockout round.  That's a given for them, an expectation.  Get to the semifinals and then they'll probably be gleeful and hopeful, because then your team is two wins away from winning the World Cup.  The U.S. soccer culture just isn't there yet, and will celebrate anything other than a loss at this point.

Now, it's easy to discount Belgium.  It's a country of 16 million people divided into speaking three different languages depending on where people live (Dutch, Flemish and French).  Twice in the past 100 years the German army went through it to menace France, the French tell Belgian jokes, their beer and chocolate are first-rate, but, well, they are a small country (not as small, though, as some of the Latin American teams).  And they aren't a traditional power the way the Netherlands (who are playing with great pride given that most pundits thought they had their best shot in 2010, only to lose in the final), Germany, Italy and France are.  But. . . they have a very talented squad, so talented, in fact, that you can make and win the argument that no U.S. player -- not Tim Howard, not Michael Bradley and not Clint Dempsey -- could start for them.  The question is one of experience and chemistry.  They are one of the youngest teams in the World Cup, and they haven't played together all that much.  Their play has demonstrated that.  They do have good leaders, though, in center backs Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen (who have captained Manchester United and Arsenal).  Their midfield abounds in talent, and it's arguable that they have two of the top ten goalies in the world and perhaps the best in Thibault Courtois.  They have all the pieces.

But, as the commentators have pointed out, they haven't played great.  Yet, they won all their games in a much easier group than the U.S., but wins in the World Cup are still wins, under great attention and pressure, so they should not be discounted much.  Pay no attention to the idiotic rating of the remaining 16 clubs that appeared on Comcast.net, having the U.S. rated 10th and the Belgians 11th (with Costa Rica 6th and the Netherlands 1st -- the Dutch got a big break because Spain was sent packing through abysmal play).  The Belgians have more talent, are a better team, and should be rated higher than the U.S. and favored. 

That's not to say that the U.S. cannot beat them.  They can, if for no other reason that the resolve that the Americans play with.  The ESPN commentators (who have been great) have pointed out that they haven't jelled and only turn it on late when they realize that they need to do more than win.  That type of sense of urgency usually catches up with a team and they lose.  And that's where the U.S. can take advantage -- if they come out aggressively, bring more men up earlier and press the Belgians, they could punch them in the face early (and, as Mike Tyson once said, "every one has a strategy until I hit him.").  Score early, and they'll test the mettle of the Belgians.  Will they get a true sense of urgency, play with fury and score the multiple goals they're capable of?  Or, because of their youth and lack of chemistry, will each star and future superstar wait around waiting for someone else to step up, only to have no one do so?  That could happen.  And if that were to happen, the U.S. could emerge with a win, and then take their chances against, in all likelihood, Argentina.

But if the U.S. were to hold back, play it safe and not press, they run the risk that in the end the Belgians talent will win out.  That's what's happened so far, and that trend could continue for the Red Devils.  The U.S., though, should act like the underdog and continue to try to show the world that it can play with the more seasoned countries and players.  It should not defer, it should not wait, it should not pull back their lines.  To do so will not exploit the lack of cohesiveness of the Belgians and their intermittent lack of urgency.

All that said, U.S. fans should temper their euphoria.  Yes, it's nice to get to the knockout round, but for the superpowers of the soccer world, that's not such a big deal.  The stakes are higher now, and the competition will step up.  It remains to be seen whether a team still not full of prime-time international players can keep pace with a team that overflows with them.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The 76ers are Saving Up for a Rainy Day

Nerlens Noel missed all of last year.

Joel Embiid will miss all of this year.

Dario Saric won't be available for two years.

Okay, so they didn't take Bruno Caboclo.

If there is a great shooter in next year's lottery, the 76ers might have a chance.

But for the NBA title or the World U-21 championships?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Just When the World Cup Captured the World's Imagination. . .

Luis Suarez bites.

Again.

And I thought it was Italy that once had a big problem with a  dormant volcano.

It will be interesting to see what FIFA does.

Not only did Suarez bite, but his teammate, Gaston Ramirez, tried to force the attacked Italian player to cover up his shoulder.  Another teammate tried to argue that the bite marks were there before the game.

Say what?  The last time I checked, vampires were imaginary and Transylvania didn't have a team in the tournament.

I mean, it's okay to call it the World Cup even if the world's four most populated countries (China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia) have about 40% plus of the world's population and none has a team in the World Cup (I know, I know, then what does that say about baseball's World Series?).  But the soccer that was played up until this afternoon was relatively clean, creative, spirited and excellent.  History didn't dominate -- some traditional powers were sent packing and one, seemingly written off before the tournament, emerged as a favorite to go to the semifinals (Netherlands).  And then Mt. Suarez erupts again.

And that's what people will remember.  Because that's what will dominate the headlines.

FIFA only has one choice -- kick him out of the tournament at a minimum, and then let's focus everyone's attention on the otherwise splendid play of Latin American teams, among other things.  They only have a few days to act, and they've been known to be corrupt (anyone play the Qatar?), but this is a hard one to get wrong.

Even for FIFA.

Lost Opportunity for US Soccer on Sunday Night

About 24 million people watched the game, three quarters on ESPN and one quarter on Univision.  A huge draw by any standard, one which many other sports would envy.  Had the U.S. held on to defeat Portugal, it would have been a big night for U.S. soccer and for soccer in the U.S.

As to the former, well, the knock on the national team is that we're a nation of midfielders, we haven't really developed a good striker, only three players are world class (Howard, Bradley, Dempsey -- Guzan probably is and Altidore could have been but for his woeful year at Sunderland in the EPL) and that where would the fifth largest country in the world be without foreign-born children of U.S. servicemen?  Winning its first two games in the group stage for the first time would have told the country that not only does the U.S. play with resolve, it actually can win games and is a different program from years past.

As to the latter, well, soccer has more than begun to get traction.  Forget about all the youth leagues (which are important but which are a given), but remember that the English Premier League had huge TV exposure in the U.S., that there is a growing Latino population and that EA Sports FIFA soccer game is one of the most popular in the world and fun to play (I love manager mode).  All of these factors point to the growing importance of soccer (and more and more boys aren't playing baseball because (i) you stand around for two and a half hours for ten minutes of action (i.e., the "it's boring" argument), (ii) dads act like wannabe Billy Martins and Earl Weavers and ruin it for everyone else, (iii) going to an MLB game is very expensive and the games take way too long because of too many commercials between half innings, pitcher's taking forever to throw and batters stepping out of the box too frequently or (iv) a combination of all of the above.  Had the U.S. won against Portugal and guaranteed itself easy entry in the Knockout Round, well, that would have completed a pretty picture for those who want soccer to take off in the U.S.

But, alas, U.S. soccer (or U.S. Soccer) has elected to go the difficult route.  Ghana and Portugal will battle, perhaps draw, it's hard to tell, but it's hard to figure that the Germans (who still have something to play for) will bench their regulars and then give the U.S. an easy game.  (And even if Germany benched its regulars, many of its back-ups are better than the U.S.'s starters).  Beat or draw Germany and the U.S. goes through, but that's a tall task against a team that's been favored to go to the semifinals.

All that said, the U.S. is far away from where it needs to be.  Until the country has between 50 and 100 of its top players playing in major leagues around the world, starting, and for good teams at that in some instances, the U.S. will not be a serious contender to win the World Cup.  Look at the teams that have excelled and you'll learn that their players are stars where they play.  Tim Howard is among the top ten goalies in the world, and Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are good, but there are at least ten countries whose top three players are better than that troika.  Atop that, right now the best athletes in the U.S. are not playing soccer -- they still play football, basketball and baseball.  Once you get the Chris Pauls and Dwayne Wades of the world to play soccer, well, then you'll have stars and superstars.  But, until then, you'll have the perpetual underdog that plays with resolve but that just doesn't have the talent to beat star-laden teams from Latin America or Western Europe.

Still, a win on Sunday night would have been a big boost -- and it would have said that not only was soccer taking off, it hit a different plateau, one from which U.S. Soccer could launch its next great efforts to build a better brand, a bigger following and, most importantly, a more deeply rooted soccer culture in the U.S.  On many fronts, the draw against Portugal was a lost opportunity.