Wednesday 22 May 2019

Don't underestimate the Americans, warns Giles

Ranked 38 places above Ireland, Klinsmann’s USA are a coming force, legend tells Liam Kelly

USA Manager Jurgen Klinsmann watches his team during the International Friendly between the USA and Colombia at Craven Cottage in London
USA Manager Jurgen Klinsmann watches his team during the International Friendly between the USA and Colombia at Craven Cottage in London

Liam Kelly

JURGEN Klinsmann brings one of the top-placed teams in the FIFA rankings to Dublin for a friendly international tomorrow night at the Aviva Stadium.

But does the Irish soccer public appreciate that the USA is worthy of such billing? I think not.

With all the recent focus on the build-up to the big Euro 2016 clash with Scotland last Friday, a friendly with the USA pales into insignificance. But anyone thinking this game will be a stroll in the park for Martin O'Neill's squad had better think again.

Fact: the USA are 23rd in the FIFA rankings; Ireland are 61st.

Fact: the USA have qualified for the World Cup finals ten times, including the last seven successive tournaments from 1990-2014 inclusive; the Republic have played in only three - 1990, 1994 and 2002.

Fact: The USA's average ranking since the FIFA order of merit was established is 19; their highest was fourth in April 2006, the lowest 36th in July 2012.

The Irish highest was sixth in December 1992 and August 1993. Our lowest was 70th, in June of this year. Our average placing has been 31 over the years.

And yet, when European observers cast an eye on the USA soccer scene, they do so with a whiff of condescension.

CONDESCENSION

Women and children play soccer in the States, don't they?

And Major League Soccer doesn't match up to European standards, does it?

Maybe the MLS doesn't match Europe's depth overall, but heck, Robbie Keane doesn't get many easy matches with LA Galaxy.

And whatever arguments are thrown up about the merit of FIFA rankings and the football in the CONCACAF region where the USA play their competitive soccer, it's fair to say the Americans are a rising force in the game.

I was in Chicago the week USA played Belgium in the round of 16 in the World Cup, and Soldier Field was jammed with hugely enthusiastic supporters watching the game on the big screens.

If anyone doubted that American soccer fans could be fervent in backing their team, the answer was right there.

The result went against Klinsmann's men, but they were heroic and captured the public imagination in fine style.

John Giles, a quintessential football man, legendary player and insightful pundit, appreciates just how much the game has developed in the USA and believes there is scope for further improvement.

"I think they've come on in leaps and bounds. My first experience in America was on a tour with Manchester United in 1960, when soccer was hardly known over there," says the Dubliner.

"We played against Hearts four times in different places, but we also played American teams, local teams, and they were very poor. I remember meeting some Americans and they asked us what were we doing there.

"When we told them we were professional players, they couldn't believe that we got paid to play football.

"So that was it in 1960 - soccer just wasn't on the map at all."

By 1978, when he went back to the USA for a stint as manager of Philadelphia Fury in what was then the North American Soccer League (NASL), Giles could see a notable difference in the whole scene.

Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and a host of international stars had been drawn to play in the States for big bucks; George Best was parading his talents there, and a huge, concerted effort was being made to establish the game as a serious professional entity.

Giles, who also went on to manage Vancouver in the early 1980s, recalls the gimmicks that were part of the NASL to make it more attractive to the fledgling American soccer public, including no offside within 35 yards of the goals, a shoot-out to the finish because no draws were allowed, and bonus points for goals.

"Their ideas were very good and the standard was very good but the American players weren't up to it and they couldn't keep importing players because it was so expensive," he says.

Giles points out that soccer has great advantages over American football, and basketball in particular, for youngsters who do not possess the physique, height, strength and agility requirements for the most popular US sports.

The advent of the 'soccer moms' driving their kids to play in a game which suited any size and both sexes, plus nationwide development programmes laid down those roots.

Immigrant populations from South America, Mexico and Europe also brought a love of the game, and equally significantly, college soccer is huge.

These were factors that increased the popularity of soccer in the States, and at professional level, the evolution into Major League Soccer (MLS), aided by the marketing of such luminaries as David Beckham, all continued the upward progress of the game.

HEALTHY

"Really it's only through the generations that you develop the game," says Giles.

"There was a time when the South American teams and later the African teams were considered a joke in relation to playing the game, but that has all changed now.

"In America, they're producing plenty of good players as we can see. Landon Donovan was one, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, and the goalkeepers such as Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard have been brilliant.

"I'd say the game is in a very healthy state in America, and I'd say that the American team that comes to Dublin will give a good account of itself."

Twelve players in Klinsmann's 25-member squad play in Europe, including Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Jozy Altidore of Sunderland, and Geoff Cameron (Stoke City).

The former German World Cup winner is mixing veterans such as 120-times capped DaMarcus Beasley of Houston Dynamo with younger players as he seeks to build on the 2014 World Cup experience.

"This has been a tremendous, positive year with the World Cup and coming out of the Group of Death, and proving to the world that we can compete with the big names.

"We want to go to Dublin and win this game," said Klinsmann.

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