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Bring a Medal Home (or U23 Coach Caleb Porter has the US soccer story to watch in 2012)

caleb-porter

“Am I saying I want to see them to bring a medal home? I think that would be asking too much if you look at all the teams.”
       - Jurgen Klinsmann, US Soccer Senior Team Coach

Am I simply too American? Am I too jingoistic? Or am I simply too romantic?

Klinsmann’s aforementioned statements about what chances he thought US Soccer’s U23 squad had at going deep into this summer’s London Olympics left me a bit bemused. I understand the desire to maintain a cautionary temperament. The United States is not Brazil. The United States is not Spain. The United States is an emerging soccer country. It is not yet an elite association footballing culture. No need to engender expectations that would be difficult to meet on the international stage.

And yet, in this strange, enigmatic thing called sport, don’t we want that same elusive thing from our great coaches that we want from our great politicians: someone who will convince us that we can triumph against adversity – even when they know we don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell even making it out of the trenches?

Or the group stage?

Klinsmann has brought a certain Eurocentric-cool to the US Senior Squad. His extensive experience abroad as a player and a coach has lent this nation a bold soccer cachet that it hasn’t had in the past.

But will he get the US to the 2014 World Cup? And if he gets the US to the 2014 World Cup, will he instill the kind fervor and confidence needed to go deep into an international tournament? The odds be damned.

Zambia didn’t seem to care that it wasn’t supposed to win the African Cup of Nations. The odds be damned.

2012 promises to be a thrilling year in US Soccer. Its ongoing growth and development domestically is proving the US to be an emerging soccer country. The past two summers have laid solid groundwork. Two major international tournaments had great exposure stateside (thank you ESPN and ESPN3 for some fantastic World Cup coverage). US Soccer hasn’t been this relevant since the Women’s World Cup in 1999.

While most seem to be looking forward to World Cup qualifying with the ongoing saga of Jurgen Klinsmann and his senior men’s side later in the year, the more intriguing saga may be the U23 team’s Olympic qualifying campaign.

Many a fan at many a sport bar I’ve frequented over the last few months have been dismissive of soccer at the Olympics. A squad that doesn’t involve the senior players holds little interest for them.

For my money, the Olympic Tournament has something that the World Cup doesn’t: it’s far more competitive and far more unpredictable. Seventeen countries have won gold medals since soccer first appeared in the Olympics. Nine countries have won the World Cup. The nature of the Olympic Tournament equalizes squads to a great extent because of the age restrictions. Some argue that the inexperience of players that age makes the tournament second-tier. I wouldn’t begin to argue that. But doesn’t the raw energy and passion of these junior players compensate for any technical imperfections in their game.

Why do we intently follow college football or basketball when we have far superior pro-leagues to take in? It’s the fire of the atmosphere. It’s the glory of the win. It’s the those fantastic intangibles that won us over to sport in the first place.

If the US tumbles ignobly out of the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament, it will prove Klinsmann’s cautionary tone correct.

But when do we as a soccer culture finally start believing that we can get take this international game by storm?

Caleb Porter seems a fantastic choice as the U23 coach. His experience with the collegiate game in the country – something remarkably unique to the US – will prove valuable. More importantly, his experience with that strange, delicate age level will prove invaluable. Coaching athletes who are both physically maturing and emotionally maturing is not an enviable task. Porter’s work at Akron has proven that he can consistently lead at a top level.

His ascension to the international level will be just as compelling a narrative as how this collection of young players perform next month against Canada and El Salvador.

Porter is set to prove whether or not he has the will, tenacity, skill, and heart to take his squad further into the summer games than his bosses think is possible.

Game on!

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