J.V. Club is Drew Toal’s roundup of recent games, controversies, triumphs, mishaps, and other amusements in the world of sports.
In their opening World Cup match last week, the United States overcame a physical Ghana team—the same country that had eliminated the Americans from the past two World Cups—in a cathartic 2-to-1 affair. This outcome came as a surprise to almost everyone, including the occasionally German, off-puttingly frank U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. America, as we all know, is the World Cup champion of moral victories—the star-spangled kings of wishful thinking. Winning at soccer is not our M.O.
After dispatching Ghana, the United States team found itself in a fairly strong position to advance from the “Group Of Death.” To move on, the Americans would likely have to beat either Portugal—a team with arguably the world’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo—or Germany, a club that grinds down its opponents with the ruthless efficiency that is the country’s birthright. The bad news was that the United States has only ever won a single World Cup match against a European opponent. The good? That lone win was against Portugal in 2002.
Sunday’s Portugal match started off not so great for these boon representatives of the New World. Some lousy defense by the Americans put the team in an early hole. ESPN promptly threw some stat up on the screen indicating that Portugal has never lost after scoring first, and then the network put up another graphic reminding us that the U.S. isn’t so good at winning either.
But then a funny thing happened. The United States didn’t fold after falling behind. In fact, the team got a few decent shots on goal before halftime and demonstrated some San Antonio Spurs-level ball movement. This didn’t look like a beaten team lining up in front of a Portuguese firing squad. Despite the early deficit, the Americans actually looked much better against Portugal than they did against Ghana.
Soccer has a somewhat deserved reputation among us casual observers for being—what’s the word?—excruciatingly boring. Yet, this game turned into the most exciting sporting event I’ve seen in years, probably since game six of the 2011 World Series. It had all the trappings of a classic, down to the easy-to-hate villain, a feisty crowd, and a scrappy underdog that refused to quit.
Team USA tied the game early in the second half, and then Clint Dempsey scored the go-ahead goal with about 10 minutes to play. The stadium erupted with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” I was enthralled. The match passed the 90-minute mark, and all signs pointed to the United States winning and advancing to the next round. We’d send Ronaldo back to Real Madrid in shame. In victory, we’d leave that diva with nothing—nothing, that is, but the Miss BumBum contestants and boatloads of cash that apparently dog his every step.
But it was not to be. In the game’s last play, five minutes into extra time, the hated Ronaldo crossed a ball in front of goalie Tim Howard, where it was headed into the goal by Silvestre Varela. The match ended in a draw. It was as if millions of voices cried out in ecstasy and were suddenly silenced. Somewhere over the Great Plains, a bald eagle dropped out of the sky, falling dead at the feet of Hacksaw Jim Duggan, who cried a single tear and dropped the stars and bars into the dust while uttering a mournful, half-whispered “Hooooooo.”
The match ended seconds after the equalizer, which brings me to one of the million or so things I don’t understand about soccer: What’s the deal with extra time? It feels like a criminally imprecise way to account for the play clock. Do the referees just kind of estimate how much time is wasted by guys flopping around the turf and adjust accordingly? I also have a hard time with the complete lack of commercial breaks. It has thrown my internal sports clock—shaped by years of relentless Coors Light and Geico advertising between timeouts—into disarray.
But it’s like my darling wife just told me after I yelled at the TV for what felt like the hundredth time, because apparently I care about soccer and America now: “You can’t win ’em all, Drew. Especially when it involves Americans playing soccer.” She’s right, of course, but fortunately we don’t have to win them all. We just have to tie Germany on Thursday.
A rematch with Germany isn’t the only thing in the world of sport happening this Thursday. There is also the NBA Draft, which is not without its own particular dramas. University Of Kansas center Joel Embiid, who a week ago appeared to be Cleveland’s clear choice at No. 1, recently suffered a setback: a stress fracture in his right foot that will put him on the shelf for four to six weeks. It’s unclear exactly how this will impact his draft stock, but it’s impossible not to think about injury-prone big men who have come before Embiid. Soon after he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2007, Greg Oden’s knees retired, and he has yet to come back to play a full, healthy season. But I’m probably oversensitive to this kind of thing since that time my Sixers rented Andrew Bynum’s sparkling personality, wonderful hair, and non-functioning joints for $16.9 million, an investment that yielded exactly zero seconds spent on the court. Good times.
I played some mini-golf last week, and thought I was pretty hot shit when I dropped four holes-in-one during the course of my round. You can’t teach that kind of thing, I told anyone within earshot. I was feeling pretty good about myself, that is, until I learned that 11-year-old Lucy Li not only qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open but shot a 78 at Pinehurst. She didn’t make the cut, but 15-year-old Andrea Lee did. Being replaced by the next generation is hard.
The Washington Redskins last week lost the trademark registration for their controversial name. This doesn’t mean the team has to change its name—not yet, anyway—but it’s only a matter of time. I applaud recent efforts to expunge the trappings of racism in sports. I also can’t help but feel that this is a strange place to start making amends. As a society, one thing we’ve long established is that we absolutely do not care about the plight of Native Americans. Our country was founded on this principle. We put the guy who signed the Indian Removal Act on our $20 bill. This month, President Obama became just the fourth sitting president in history to visit a reservation. Most of those reservations are characterized by high poverty rates, inadequate housing, low education levels, drug abuse, and poor employment prospects. But hey, we’re going to fix that football team’s name, maybe!
While standing in the on deck circle, Jose Bautista idly wonders if there’s more to life than hitting home runs, shudders at the passing thought, and continues to mash as the good Lord intended.