There was a time when baseball was the most important thing in my life. I was hooked at an early age, as I began playing when I was seven, and I didn’t stop playing competitively until I was twenty-two, when I was cut from the Rio Hondo Community College team. The first Little League team I played on was the Pittsburgh Pirates. We played our games at Garvey Park in Rosemead, fifteen-minutes from Dodgers Stadium.

Because I was on the Pirates, they became one of my favorite professional baseball teams. I admired Pittsburgh’s winning ways, especially during their “We are Family” era of the 70’s. I was a baseball fan, though, and so I liked a lot of other teams, too.

When I was asked by my coach what position I played, I said, “Catcher.” It is, without a doubt, the greatest position in baseball.  I became a catcher because Thurmon Munson was a catcher. He played behind the plate for the Yankees in the early 70’s. He died in a plane crash six days before my ninth birthday. This may be the reason why I am deftly afraid of plane travel.

When it came to baseball, I always felt as if I was born too late. I missed out on seeing Mantle and Ruth and DiMaggio and Koufax and Robinson. Their time was up. But my era, the 70’s and 80’s, could also boast some of the greatest names in baseball. We had Rose, Carew, Jackson, Henderson, Ozzie, and Stargell. I studied and emulated these players with deep, emotional, out-of-body conviction,  copying the way they walked and spit and banged their bats against their cleats.

Pete Rose was the biggest thief in baseball, and because of Pete, I, too, stole bases. My leads at first base were huge, almost illegal. Pitchers and catchers had no chance in getting me out. My grandma, Maria Del Carmen, made herself sick every time she watched me play. She would tearfully urge me to get back to first and plead with me to shorten my lead. These were the only instances where I didn’t obey my grandma. Covering her eyes, she would yell, “Get back, mijo. Get back! Marcos, get back!” She was my biggest supporter, and I’m sure I gave her nightmares that involved my being picked-off at first or tagged out at second. I never was, though.

Rod Carew made me wish I could switch-hit. Everything he did reeked of sophistication, down to the manner in which he chewed. His left-cheek was perpetually impregnated with a massive wad of tobacco and Wrigley’s Gum. I used to stuff my mouth with unhealthy portions of Big League Chew just to look and feel like Carew. I even became a switch-hitter.

These guys and many other players contributed to the wonder of my childhood, and emulating them was my main hobby. And Every kid I knew imitated one player or another—sometimes even an entire team’s line-up. We all had our favorites, but we made sure to reserve a special place for the one player we each admires above all others.  For me, this one player was Fernando Valenzuela.

I was ten year’s old when Fernando debuted for the Dodgers. It was September 15, 1980, to be exact. The Dodgers were playing the Braves in Atlanta, and Fernando came on in relief. I was watching the game with my granda. We moved into her house in Rosemead where we stayed for a few years while my parents saved to buy a house of their own.

Vin Scully, in his unmistakable inflection and tone, said, “And now, coming on in relief for the Dodgers is nineteen-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, from Sonora, Mexico.” I had to squint at the T.V., even though I had perfect vision. I turned to my grandmother and said, “Grandma, is he Mexican?” “Yes, Mijo, he’s Mexican!” All of sudden, this was not another baseball game. Grandma and I scooted towards the front of the couch and leaned in towards the television to get a clearer look at this chubby, pimply kid who was about to take the mound for the Dodgers.

He was Mexican, but he was like no Mexican I had ever seen, and I had already seen hundreds, including my my 123 cousins. He could’ve easily been a primo or a tio or a tio’s friend, but there was something markedly different about this Mexicano.  He seemed to float on a mist that carried him peacefully to where he needed to be. In Atlanta, on this night, Fernando drifted towards the mound from the bullpen.

Atop the mound, Manager Tommy Lasorda shoved the ball into his glove, gave him a pat on the back, and left him alone. Fernando promptly dug his place in front of the pitcher’s plate, positioned himself, and proceeded to warm-up. I watched every pitch like a lion watches prey. He was a southpaw with a roundhouse, Vida Blue kick that complimented the big, swinging arch of his left-arm as it snapped like a wet towel towards a crouching Steve Yeager.

His windup was akin to the blossoming of a rare flower. It unfolded, beginning with the strategic backwards step of his right leg, in perfect balance and symmetry. Then with a startled change of direction, Fernando kicked the same right leg upward, thrusting it to its highest point before having to bend it at the knee. Simultaneously, his left-foot was  locked into position at the front edge of the pitcher’s plate, the launching point.

While every component in his lower-body pivoted, swung, twisted, and turned, Fernando’s upper-body was conducting its own complex patterns. His hands were in union, his left-hand fiddling with the ball, searching for the sweetest part of the seams. At nineteen-years-old, he already had a “signature pitch.” It was the screwball, a pitch not commonly thrown in the majors, mainly because of the strain and damage it can cause to the elbow, not to mention the difficulty in throwing it. Scully explained the screwball everyone watching and listening. He explained its level of difficulty-how it lacks accuracy and speed. The next day, all the kids in my neighborhood were throwing a screwball.

His windup’s climax too place a split second before he released the ball. As his right leg thrust upward, his knee almost at chin level, his hands in the prayer position covering his face, Fernando’s eyes eerily peeked out just above the top of his glove. When we saw his eyes, we knew. They were the source of his charm. Every pitch emanated from his eyes—his Mexican eyes.

The camera showed a close-up of his face the moment before he let the ball fly. His eyes were completely rolled back into his skull, becoming white dots, scary, like a shark’s eyes before they bite down on prey. There was no vision in them. He wasn’t using them to see! Instead, Fernando used his eyes as a command—a gesture to the heavens to provide his pitches power and accuracy. Finally, just as the pitch was thrown, Fernando turned his face towards the plate, and then we saw, under the bright lights of Chavez Ravine, his young, brown eyes in full focus. Los Angeles had a new hero.

My grandma and I were in awe. We were consumed and taken captive by Fernando and his youth and his indifference. We were watching history.  In our two-dimensional world, we had something very tangible. It was eventually given a name: Fernandomania. My grandma and I saw its birth.

From that point on, my grandma and I saw every game he pitched in that season. There were twenty-one games left after Fernando made his debut. He pitched in ten of them. The next year, in 1981, Fernando won the Cy Young Award, the Rookie-of-the-Year Award, the Silver Slugger Award, and the World Series! Los Angeles was in a cataleptic state of Fernandomania!

Every generation says, “Those were the good ol’ days.” Well, those were the good ol’ days. I miss everything about them, especially my grandma. Baseball? Well, it’s no longer a game. Nowadays, players are given curtain calls for long foul balls. It wasn’t always like this. A player had to do something special, something magical, something Reggie Jackson-like. It’s even rare to see guy chewing a massive glob of something. Instead, most ball players have personalized cleats and gloves. Yeah, the game has changed.

I know kids these days have heroes. They need them, just as I did when I was a kid. For the sake of the game, though, today’s ball players need to just shut up and play ball.


Does My Daughter Know I Exist?

This morning, as usual, I’m up before my two daughters and one wife. It was the same yesterday morning, too. I was in the bathroom. I heard the ladies emerge from their quarters with the sounds of turning door knobs then the creaks of wooden floors and then heel-to-toe steps to the living room where my little hens converged to begin their respective days.

I could hear all their chatter as I sat on the shitter a few feet down the hall. I listened with fatherly pride, too, and amusement, as my wife orchestrated the early morning goings on. “Mom, could I have screen time,” asked Xaria. She is six-years-old, and she is into watching these two little English broads who appear regularly on the Ellen Show. They sing and dance and incessantly rant about their likes and dislikes, and they’re always dressed like princesses. Xaria is pretty much rendered incapacitated under their spell. “Yes, you may, Xaria.” Then I heard my wife turn her attention to Iris. Iris was screeching at the top of her lungs, not in anguish, but in pure joy of being in the same room with her mom and sister, I guess. I mean what else could she be giddy about? Guen mimicked her baby sounds and the two jumped into an early morning game of copy-cat, a Cisneros pastime of sorts. 

And I’m in the John. I was pretty much done, but I was content to sit and listen to the morning cacophony of the three girls I live with. Then I got lost in thought. 

Iris was the loudest in the room. She is ten-months-old, and on this morning, she has yet to see me. I knew that Xaria and Guen would greet me with a “Good morning, Daddy,” as soon as I walked into the room. This simple greeting is one of the precious, tiny gifts that comes with fatherhood.

I was thinking about Iris, though. As she scuttled around the room in her walker making do-do, dada sounds and bumping into every piece of furniture we own, I was wondering if she maybe thought about where i was? Does she know I exist? Does she have the tools at her age to think or wonder about me? Or will it be a “Hey, I remember this guy,” moment when she finally sees me?

If this last scenario is the case, then it happens everyday with Iris. And if this is the case, she doesn’t miss me when I go away and return hours later. Actually, this may be the only scenario. I know she can’t blurt out, “Where’s Dad?” I don’t believe she wonders about me, so in a way, it’s a surprise party for her every time I walk in to the room! 

She’s lucky, I guess! Wouldn’t it be nice if our relationships were like this in adulthood. I could wake up next to my wife every morning, roll over and after eye contact yell out, “Hey, what’s up? How are you? It’s good to see you? Where’ve you been?” and just convulse in excitement. Or at work you could run up to your colleagues and administrators on a Tuesday and give them huge hugs and scream, “Whoa! How you guys doing? I remember you! Where were you? It’s been a while!”

Come to think of it, I’m writing this in the early morning. Iris has yet to see me this morning. I have a feeling that a surprise party is about to go down!

Golden Oldies: Germany vs. Argentina

The German National Football Team is supposed to defeat Argentina in Sunday’s 2014 World Cup Final, handily. It’s all but scripture. The Germans have been thoroughly praised for the quality of their performances, especially after their inhumane thrashing of Brazil. The 7-1, victory over the host country did much to convince pundits across the globe that the Deutsch will hoist this year’s World Cup trophy. Some may even dare to say that the game is a mere formality for Germany. They could be right.

After all, in terms of individual talent, the Germans are at the top looking down. They are at the apex of their “Golden Generation,” a football generation just short of being genetically modified to end Germany’s trophy-less drought. They are a group of ridiculously talented young men that have come-of-age together, nurtured and looked after by a country desperate for football success. Now, all of Germany looks to reap the benefits of their collective investment, and a trophy is all they demand. It has been a while.

Being referred to as the Golden Generation isn’t always a term of endearment. Just ask Portugal. After winning consecutive World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991, success for this group seemed limitless. The team was laden with talent, fielding many of the best players of the 90’s, including Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Jorge Costa, names to be reckoned with in the European soccer world. But in 2004, after reaching the final of the European Cup, Portugal was humiliated by the darkest of horses in Greece. Portugal has not been in any kind of final since.

England is another fable of sorts. The English assembled a football boy band comprised of English Premiere League players doing very well for their respective clubs at the time. David Beckham was the face of the team, followed by Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and a kid named Wayne Rooney. They, too, possessed an abundance of talent. However, club success for these players did not translate into national team success. In fact, England did not qualify for the last European Cup, a blasphemous gesture and end to a highly regarded English football era that produced very little for which to be proud.

The Ivory Coast and the Netherlands are still two more examples of talented teams falling short of expectations. Les Éléphants featured Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Eboue and the Toure brothers. There was even talk that an African nation would finally find success at the highest level. However, after failing to dominate the Africa Cup of Nations, and being knocked out of the group stages at Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, the Ivory Coast’s hourglass was left to its last grains of sand, falling to the curse of the Golden Generation.

The Netherlands has the dubious distinction of experiencing multiple Golden Generations. In the 80’s, as apt students of the Ajax School of Football, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, and the De Boer’s, were hailed as Dutch football’s saviors. In the end, their success was barely modest. A fourth place finish in France 1998, was the best this group could do. Eventually, most of these players stepped aside to make room for Holland’s new wave of talent.

A few days ago, in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, the Dutch fielded the remnants of another relatively young and highly talented team, a team led by legendary Dutchman Louis van Gaal, a disciple himself of the Ajax School. Van Gaal and his group reached this point in the competition with seemingly more luck than talent. Nevertheless, Holland were a few penalty misses away from nearly reaching consecutive World Cup Finals, the last in 2010. Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Ron Vlaar, and Klaas jan Huntelaar, highly successful club players, fought for 120 valiant minutes, but the Oranje finally bowed out of the cup, falling to Argentina.

Now, all this isn’t to say that Germany will suffer the fates of past Golden Generations. For their part, the Deutsch have already enjoyed a great deal of football success, last winning the World Cup in Italy 1990, and the they reached the semi-finals when they hosted the tournament in 2006, and again in South Africa 2010. No, this is just to say that the German team playing in this Sunday’s Final fits the full description of a Golden Generation, and expectations are at a maximum.

Bundestrainer Joachim Löw is armed with players who have been battle-hardened at the highest levels of club and international play. Philipp Lahm, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Mario Götze, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, Toni Kroos, Jérôme Boateng, and Miroslav Klose—the names alone are enough to cause panic. They will rely on goalkeeper Manuel Neuer as their last line of defense. Neuer is arguably the best keeper in all of football, and he’s been spectacular in this year’s competition. It’s either now or never for Löw, as his pot of gold runneth over.

Meanwhile, Argentina will field, on average, the oldest team in the competition. Call them the Onyx Generation or the Silver Generation or even the Blue Topaz Generation. Call them what you will. What you can’t call them is lucky or inexperienced.

The proud La Albiceleste bulled their way into the final backed by three stellar defensive performances. It has been more than 300 minutes since the Argentine defense has allowed a goal in this 2014 World Cup competition. Nigeria put two past them in the group stage, which now seems quite distant.

It’s been a while since Argentina has tasted from the Cup. In 1978, the last time the World Cup was held in South America, in Argentina to be exact, La Albiceleste was triumphant. Eight years later, in 1986, Argentina again lifted the trophy, this time in Mexico. However, in the years that have followed, the furthest Argentina has ventured in the competition are the quarterfinals, three times.

Like Germany, it may be now or never for Argentina. Their key players, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez, Gonzalo Higuain, and Ezekiel Lavezzi, are getting slightly long in the tooth. They still have Kun Aguero and a young Enzo Perez, who, by the way, was superb in place of injured Angel Di Maria.

Of course, no discussion can be considered legitimate unless Lionel Messi’s name is mentioned. You’d have to be brain dead to not know of him. He is considered the greatest player on Earth, drawing tireless comparisons to Diego Maradona for his speed, agility, size, and overall fooball brilliance. The only other Argentinian perhaps more beloved than Messi is Papa Francisco, or Pope Francis, and even this is debatable. As the German nation urges their team to victory on Sunday, so too will Argentina, with Messi carrying much of the responsibility. If there is any player that can withstand this burden, it is he.

Sunday’s Final is as intriguing as a football match can get. The precise, mechanical, and near perfect German side will not deviate from a formula that has proven successful. Argentina, on the other hand, will rely on their physical play, their experience, and their Messi. I side with experience.

In most of life’s ventures, experience is priceless. Argentina has the experience. They have the talent. They have the will. They have home field advantage. In the end, Argentina will prove just a bit too much for Germany. Look for Messi to have the greatest game of his illustrious career, as La Albicelest once again, call South America their continent.

For the Germans, all that glitters will not be gold.

Das the Way You Do It: German Precision

Despite my indifference towards the Brazilian National Team and their particular brand of football, I have to refrain from reveling in the ashes of their semi-final defeat to Germany. It was gruesome. It was brutal. It was German. Brazil suffered immensely, and it was difficult to watch.

The Brazil National Team, already burdened heavily by the shame and humiliation of their loss, will be forever haunted by the infamy of the most lopsided game in semi-final history. 7-1, was the final score–and it could have been worse for Brazil.

I cannot revel. Brazil has done much for the game, both in Brazil and abroad. Club rosters across the professional soccer spectrum, from Japan to Russia to Turkey to America, are drafted with Brazilian surnames. Brazil is a country that breeds football talent. They are the cradle of football civilization. So what went wrong?

Well, for one, Germany was in town, and when Germany drops in, either a world war gets started or lots of goals are scored. Luckily for us, the latter took place.

The general media, as they are apt to do, will find it easier to criticize than to praise. They will exhaust their focus in describing Brazil’s mental letdown; their lack of discipline; their lack of patience; their poor coaching and game tactics; their archaic way of playing the game. But to do so, to highlight Brazil’s football inferiority, means also to dismiss and ignore Germany’s tactical brilliance and dominance.

In playing versus Brazil, Germany was what very football team strives to be. Take their patience, for starters. The Deutsch were on their heels for the opening ten-minutes of the match, weathering a barrage of mini-attacks by Brazil’s relentless 4-3-3. It looked as if Germany was in for a load of trouble. But they withstood Brazil’s attack, an attack heavy with emotion, as an entire nation urged Brazil forward. Germany absorbed it all.

Germany remain composed. Their immediate goal was to hold the ball in spurts and cool Brazil’s attack. They succeeded, and Brazil seemed uneasy.

It did not take very long for Germany to strike. When a team puts numbers forward, as Brazil was doing, they will eventually be caught short-handed on the defensive end. At the 11th minute, a chink in the Brazilian armor–call it a slight lapse in concentration–call it Thomas Müller. 1-0, Germany.

To say that an entire nation was stunned would be a gross understatement. Even the Germans looked perplexed. Where was the “cooling break”? No, this is Brazil, right? No obstacle is too great for the five-time champions.

Twelve-minutes later, another Brazilian error, and then Miroslav Klose. 2-0, Germany. Not only did Klose plunge and turn the knife into Brazil’s bleeding heart, he also separated himself from Ronaldo, Brazil’s legendary #9, as the top goal scorer in the history of the World Cup. Germany was now in full march.

From this point on, it was schnitzel for everyone, as Kroos, Khedira, and Schürrle took turns feasting on Brazil’s beleaguered defense. In the end, Germany’s commitment to fundamental football proved way too much for an outmatched and out-shined Brazil squad.

Even a casual reexamination of the match will show how disciplined Germany was on both sides of the ball. On the attack, Germany took advantage of Brazil’s weak midfield defending. They worked the ball inside the middle of the pitch where Brazil was in their 4-3-3 mode. This drew in Brazil’s wings. The Germans then worked the ball back to the outside, spreading their own wings, and spreading Brazil out wide in the most crucial part of the field. When the ball finally came back in, Germany had massive numbers in the box…and space…and time!

The most impressive part of Germany’s performance was their mental discipline. The game had clearly gotten out of hand for Brazil. Frustration was high, and you could see it clearly in Brazil’s willingness to physically harm the German players. At one point, David Luiz all but assaulted Thomas Müller, in front of the ref. To Müller’s credit, he and his mates remained calm and did not retaliate. There were many instances such as this one.

Germany actually found themselves in an awkward position. Do we continue to attack and score goals and come off as cold and unforgiving? Or do we relax somewhat, out of respect for the host county and the legendary players of yesteryear? Relax too much, and you are being disrespectful. Attack and continue the onslaught and you are being disrespectful.

Germany played it well, though. They attacked when the opportunities arose, and they relaxed a bit by keeping possession in their defensive and middle thirds. It was classy, if you ask me.

There is no doubt that Germany is a fantastic side. Are gentian is, too. Argentina will get by the Netherlands, and then they will beat Germany in the World Cup Final. It won’t be easy, but Messi and his mates will lift the Cup.

Argentina, like Germany, is sharp at every position, and their bench, unlike Brazil’s, is loaded with talent. They are physical, they are fearless, and they are skillful. They have speed and superior off-the-ball movement. And they have Messi!

The Albiceleste is hungry! Messi is hungry! Vamos, vamos Argentina!

Breached in Brazil: Germany Advances

On the eve of the first semi-final game of this 2014 World Cup between host country Brazil and European powerhouse Germany, much of the current talk centers on Brazil and their young super-icon, Neymar, Jr. For the living troglodytes in football-land, Neymar suffered a fractured vertebra in their win versus Columbia. Neymar’s absence is as much a loss for the rest of the world as it is for Brazil, as one of the world’s most dynamic players will not take part in Brazil’s life or death semi-final clash. The world then is denied the opportunity of witnessing Neymar’s talent on the grandest of stages.

When it comes to Brazil’s success without Neymar, however, his loss is only tragic on the surface. Through five games, Neymar has netted four of Brazil’s ten goals, two more than center defender David Luiz. Coach Scolari has had no trouble turning to the wealth of talent he has at his disposal, as Oscar, Fred, Roza, and Silva have also all contributed to Brazil’s overall firepower. Without Neymar, the goals will continue to drop for Brazil.

In replacing Neymar, Scolari will more than likely turn to Willian, Chelsea’s winger and sometimes center midfielder, or he may turn to Ramires, Willian’s better half at Chelsea. Regardless of whom he starts, Neymar’s position is in good hands.

Brazil’s bigger worry, and their greater loss, will be felt at their defensive end. Team captain Tiago Silva is forced to sit against Germany due to an accumulation of yellow cards. Through the same five games, Brazil’s defense has allowed a miniscule four goals. Silva has started and finished all five of these games, and his omnipresence in the back during the competition has been stellar, strengthening his reputation as being one of the fiercest defenders in the game. Tiago’s absence leaves Brazil playing sans their most vital defensive component, and this could interfere with their chances of playing in the championship of their own tournament.

Scolari’s most effective option in replacing Silva will be Bayern Munich center back Dante. Dante gives Brazil the versatility, size, and physical presence of Silva, but he lacks Silva’s soccer intelligence and instinctiveness for the position. Scolari could choose to further strengthen his depleted defense by bringing in a solid holding or defensive midfielder, perhaps Gustavo or Bernard. If so, we should see a more attack-minded team, with Brazil turning to a true 4-3-3. This is the good news for Brazil.

The bad news, of course, is that Brazil will not advance to the Final. Germany mirrors Brazil’s defensive and offensive prowess. Through their own five games, Germany has scored ten goals, similar to Brazil, and has surrendered only three goals, one less than Brazil. Defensively speaking, Mertesacker and Boateng are mammoth in the back, with Mustafi and Lahm intelligently anchoring the defensive wings. In short, Germany’s defensive unit will spell the end for Brazil.

That is unless Brazil can effectively use their wings. Germany’s lone defensive weakness lies in Mertesacker’s speed, or lack of it. If Brazil presses the pedal and keeps Mertesacker on his heels, Brazil will breach the German wall and find themselves at the end of some scoring opportunities, a rarity against the Deutsch. If it so happens that Brazil wander into Germany’s attacking third, the only person they’ll have to deal with at this point is Manuel Neuer, arguably the best goalkeeper of the tournament. Getting past Neuer will not be easy, but it has been done.

It’s likely that Germany will march into their seventh World Cup Finals appearance, and they will do so against a very hungry Argentina team, which, of course, means that the Argentines will get through the Netherlands, in the other semi-final scheduled for tomorrow, July 9, 2014. The South American country will bask in the glory of home field advantage, and every singing and dancing Argentine in attendance will see their Albiceleste lift the magical Cup. Brazil, like the other thirty-one teams, will be left to their excuses. In their case, Neymar and Silva will fit the bill. And If you listen carefully, you might hear the faint voice of a Mexico fan whispering, “No era penal.”

Will the Real United States Men’s National Soccer Team Please Stand Up?

01 July 2014

Today, Americans saw their national soccer team lose a tense and physically demanding match versus a young and talented Belgium team. It was an exciting match on many levels. Both teams had with plenty of build-up and counter-attack play, with scoring opportunities for both teams, mostly for Belgium. It was a valiant U.S. effort, without a doubt, but don’t be mislead, America. The U.S. was no match for Belgium. Some will say, “Oh, man! The U.S. fought their assess off! They didn’t give up. They worked really hard. They weren’t knocked down. It was awesome!” When it comes to soccer, this way of looking at the game’s outcome is irrational, as it fails to consider the actual game and how it was played. It would be like Joe the Plumber going seven rounds with a young Mike Tyson. “Man, Joe the Plumber fought his ass off! He didn’t give up. He worked really hard. He wasn’t knocked down. It was awesome!” Well, maybe Joe the Plumber didn’t kiss the canvas, but did you get a good look at his face after the fight? He can’t see, he can’t smell, he has two black eyes, and he’s missing his two front teeth. Oh, and there’s a good chance that he’ll never be able to reproduce.” This is because Joe the Plumber doesn’t actually know how to fight.

Working really hard and battling and never giving up are important qualities for teams to have, but these qualities are expected of every World Cup team. You can’t compete in the Cup without them. The U.S. did not play soccer today. Yeah, the could’ve secured the win had Wondolowski finished the early Christmas gift that fell to his natural shooting leg, but he didn’t, and it’s sad that he couldn’t put his only opportunity in the back of the net because Wondolowski could’ve single-handedly changed the way America thinks about soccer,forever!

Don’t get me wrong. I want American soccer to succeed. Americans should be at the forefront of the sport, as a team to be feared. The U.S. country has the money and resources to achieve big things in worldwide football, but the U.S. isn’t taken seriously. We are on par with Trinidad and Tobago’s team and Jamaica’s team and Canada’s team. We are barely a step above Cuba’s team. Even when Mexico is at its worst, America is still only at their level.

I’ve been asking this question for years: In a country with over 317 million people, you’re telling me that the twenty-three men representing America are the very best players this country can produce? I don’t buy it at all. It’s time for the U.S. Soccer Federation to take a more genuine look at how their operation conducts itself. There are plenty of models to follow—Germany and Holland are only two.

There are bright sides. Tim Howard was superb. How many saves can a team expect their keeper to make? Apparently, the number is seventeen. Bradley, the U.S. midfielder, ran his lungs out. I have never seen an American player run so much in one game. It was as if these two bald guys got together before the game and made a pact to carry the team as far as they could—to leave everything on the field. Maybe the U.S. team should begin their “rebuilding process” by shaving their heads?

And an a “rebuilding process” is a term American pundits will use, once more, to describe America’s soccer future. Klinsmann needs time. Well, maybe he does. He needs time to take an honest drive across America to uncover the abundance of hidden soccer talent that is surely tucked away in small farming towns and broken down suburbs. Yeah, they’ll have names like Martinez and Kovac and La Sala and Chung and Hurakami and Mohammed, but guess what? They’ll be American, and soccer will be in their blood!

Herein lies the area in which the U.S. Soccer Federation’s fear is most apparent. They do not want to color the team. Bring in too many Latinos and you have another Mexican National Team. Bring in Mohammed’s and all of a sudden we’re a Muslim team. Chung’s and Hurakami’s are not American. U.S. Soccer is afraid to color the team for fear of scaring away loyal U.S. supporters. Do we currently have color? No, we don’t. Jones and Johnson are not African-American. They’re German. Green, today’s goal scorer, is German, too. Bedoya and Gonzalez fit the “American” mold because they have gone through America’s soccer protocol: college. But not every talented soccer player goes to college. In fact, the most talented soccer players in the United States rarely play for colleges and universities. These institutions often get the second-best players in the county. This is because many are not academically sound and can’t get into universities. Others don’t have the money to pay for school. These are the players that fall through nets, but these are the players that the U.S. has to invest in.

Today’s game was exciting. I was on the edge of my seat, and I was wholeheartedly rooting for the U.S. I was born in the United States and I am a proud Mexican-American. It would be nice to see an actual Mexican-American on the team. It would be nice to hear U.S. supporters chanting in Spanish and German and Japanese. Then we could say we feel connected to the United States Men’s National Soccer Team because at least they’ll look like us.  

Surprise: Here Come the Americans!

I love being Mexican-American! My dual heritage allows me to root for two teams in this year’s World Cup. Mexico was sent packing two days ago, but my other team, Team U.S.A., is still in the hunt, and today, the Yanks take on the 11th ranked team in the world, Belgium, a national team that given time can field eleven English Premier League players. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann fully understands the difficult task his team will face against the Red Devils. Klinsmann has played football at the highest and most pressured levels, and he has continually conveyed to his men that they must remain mentally focused throughout every game. Today is no exception.

Mental toughness, however, has really never been an issue for the Americans. Soccer IQ is another issue, but for the most part, the team’s deficiencies arise from a simple lack of experience and talent. 

Team U.S.A. is masterful at making do with the players at hand, and with Klinsmann at the helm, a man whose storied football career is still looked upon with great respect, Belgium will have to be on guard for the ultimate upset. But there is only so much Klinsmann can do. 

 Reaching the quarterfinals for only the second time in its history will not be easy for the U.S. Their attack has been anemic, and with Jozy Altidore still not one-hundred-percent, this is sure to continue in today’s game, unless someone can awaken Dempsey to remind him that he’s playing in the World Cup. With Dempsey as the lone striker, the Americans have been outshot 54-27, scoring four-goals and allowing four. There is talk that Altidore could see some minutes today, and, if this is true, it would be welcomed sight for the U.S. Due to his injury early in the cup.  We have not had the opportunity to see what Altidore can do on this particular stage.
Of course, Dempsey is carrying a lot of weight. American fans would like to see Bradly share some of the possession responsibilities with Dempsey, but he has been making things worse by gifting the ball to the opposing team. If Bradley can display some of the flair he did as a starter at Roma, the U.S. will have more than a fighting chance against a very talented Belgium team.

Klinsmann will more than likely hit the pitch in 4-2-3-1, formation—again with Dempsey as the lone striker. This may work today, especially if Bradley and Beckerman can retain possession for significant stretches. The Red Devils have not yet faced a significant opponent in the World Cup. Remember that Belgium has qualified out of arguably the easiest group in the Cup, and they have scored only four goals, three of them coming from substitutes. The U.S.’s physicality and speed could cause panic for the Belgians, and one U.S. goal will change what Belgium has planned for the match.

Again, it’s a steep climb for the U.S. Belgium’s stingy defense has impressed more than anything. Through ten UEFA qualifiers, the Red Devils allowed only four-goals, and so far in this 2014 World Cup, they have given up only one-goal (penalty). Breaching Belgium’s defensive line will take some work. The U.S. will have to rely heavily on the element of surprise in order to get past Kompany, who is prone to giving up space and leaving his feet in Belgium’s defensive third of the field. This surprise could be a sustained and aggressive attack, something we have not yet seen from the U.S.

The goalkeeping mini-drama will be interesting, too. Tim Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, has solidified his current ranking as one of the best keepers in the world. He has been America’s savior on more than one occasion, and today, the Yanks will rely heavily on his experience and instinctual intelligence. Belgium, too, boasts one of the sharpest keepers in the world. 6’6” Thibaut Courtois is Atletico Madrid’s gatekeeper, and he has looked every bit of sharp for the Red Devils. The deciding factor could rest in the hands of either keeper.

Don’t be surprised to see Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski on the field at the same time for the Americans. This could prove to be the element of surprise the Americans have planned. Jurgen may not be wearing long-sleeves for today’s game, but there are other places from which to pull a rabbit.