My 13-year-old twin sons started playing United Soccer Leagues Super-Y summer ball this past weekend with the Ocean City Nor'easters. As with any step up in competition, you see how the speed of the game forces players to make quicker decisions. Over time, this accelerated muscle memory becomes ingrained, making you a better player.
When the U.S. men's national team defeated Canada 2-0 at Ford Field in Detroit in a CONCACAF Gold Cup match on Tuesday night (before, it must be said, a disappointing 28,000-plus fans), the American players who caught the eye were those who have spent time plying their trade in the English Premier League, the toughest in the world.
Before I start hearing from proponents of Spain's La Liga, the Italian Serie A and even the German Bundesliga, please know how I'm grading the leagues. It comes down to a matter of strength, top-to-bottom. The mainland European leagues are still top-heavy. The champions of those leagues enjoy a lot of 5-0 and 6-1 wins in a season.
Yes, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Inter Milan team of the last few years and an occasional Bayern Munich side might be better than a particular Manchester United or Chelsea side from the Premiership. But the English sides have to work harder for their titles, as evidenced by the frequency with which, say, a 16th-placed Wolves can beat a 3rd-placed Arsenal.
What has this got to do with the proverbial price of eggs? Well, there have been quite a few Americans not only serving as squad players in the "Prem," but also finding themselves as key players in their respective squads. Goalkeeper Tim Howard is a rock for Everton, while midfielder/forward Clint Dempsey scored 12 goals for Fulham in the season that just ended.
But, don't forget, loan spells count for a lot, too. A few seasons ago, Yank striker Jozy Altidore put in some valuable minutes for Hull City, while Landon Donovan worked his winger/striker magic for Everton. Those weeks spent playing against some of the best players in the world manifest themselves in moments like Tuesday night's, when Donovan smacked an inch-perfect 40-yard pass into Altidore's path.
The young striker took a touch out to the right, and within a nanosecond he blasted the ball past the Canadian keeper. Had Altidore still been playing for the New York Red Bulls of MLS, he might not have pulled the trigger so quickly. Again, it's muscle memory ... and it paid a huge benefit to the U.S. in this instance in a regional match that really mattered.
The Yanks' second goal was the result of a brilliant piece of individual skill by Dempsey. The kid from Nacogdoches, Texas is a true one-off, as the English say. He thinks outside the soccer box, and in a way that lifts the players around him up a few levels. Dempsey has scored 33 goals for Fulham over the past few years, a number that may never be equaled by an American.
But, let's not beat around the bush. The true star on this team is Howard, who is ... without a doubt ... one of the five best goalkeepers in the world. His physicality is the result of a high-school career in New Jersey prowling the basketball courts on a state-championship level. Some of the saves he made against Canada on Tuesday night seem to defy physics. The guy is that good.
And as the second game of the Gold Cup against Panama looms on Saturday night, the U.S. has to keep the tempo high. Mexico laid out a real marker with an opening-match 5-0 win over El Salvador that saw a hat trick from striker Javier "El Chicharito" Hernandez, and the Yanks will have to be at their best to grab the trophy. Over the next few weeks, we'll see the storyline play out. Enjoy the summer soccer!