What U.S. fans can expect in the World Cup

David Wangerin, author of  Soccer in a Football World, discusses what it takes–and what it really means–to be in the World Cup.

Cover ArtNot so long ago, it was a question you wouldn’t have expected Americans to ask. But this summer, it’s on the lips of a few million: how will we do at the World Cup?

Many still recall the days when the United States would have been happy just to put in an appearance at soccer’s biggest show. But now there is a level of expectation. American fans are wondering which of their teams will turn up: the one that surprised many in 1994 and 2002, or the one that disappointed in 1998 and 2006.

In the eyes of the country’s wider sporting fraternity, anything other than outright victory would not count for much. But soccer fans know that success at the World Cup is relative. They’ll tell you only seven countries have ever lifted the trophy – and two of them only once, when it was held on their own soil. The odds don’t favor the United States becoming the eighth this summer.

This, though, is a knockout competition, where only seven matches are asked even of the winning team – and where the perception of a successful or an unsuccessful showing can rest on thin evidence. The “success” of the US’s 1994 United States team was largely attributable to a single performance against Colombia, the only match of four it managed to win; the “failures” of four years later lost two of their three matches by a single goal (and in one game they struck the frame of the goal four times). Even the 2002 quarterfinalists were lucky. They needed an unlikely result – South Korea’s win over Portugal – to make it past the group phase.

While good fortune may only carry a team so far, no team will ever win the cup without it. A favorable decision in the penalty area; the wave of a linesman’s flag; a ball that may or may not have crossed the line – on such contentious judgments are crucial matches often decided. Germans continue to dispute the legitimacy of the deciding goal of the 1966 final; the English still wonder how neither referee nor linesman spotted Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” in 1986. And American fans wince at the memory of a late German hand-ball in 2002, which, on another day, would have warranted a penalty kick – one that might have kept their team in the tournament.

Soccer Ball

If one good day’s work and a rub of the green can put a team through to the knockout phase, then the vagaries of a penalty-kick shootout can help it inch closer to the final. In 1994, the United States was paired with Brazil in what most of the world regarded as a colossal mismatch; but the Americans packed their defense and held the eventual champions to a single goal. With better luck they might even have shut them out, and then taken them to the contrivance of penalties – where the outcome becomes more a question of nerve than footballing skill. England are zero for three in World Cup shootouts, but South Korea are one for one; in 2002 the hosts reached the semifinals by taking favored Spain to a shootout – and coolly converting all five of their kicks.

So where will the United States finish in South Africa? The final stages of recent tournaments have usually produced a surprise package: few expected Sweden to reach the semifinals in 1994, or Croatia to do so in 1998, or Turkey in 2002. The 2006 tournament may have been more predictable, but winners Italy still needed a dubious last-minute penalty to slip past  Australia in the round of 16. For all the hype surrounding their match with England, the United States’s crucial performances are likely to be against Algeria and Slovenia. Cheer yourself silly, by all means – but do make sure your fingers are crossed.

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