When you're in a long-term relationship, you learn to roll with the punches. If you love the girl or guy opposite you, the boring, work-a-day nights usually are cancelled out by occasional activities that tap the spark that started the relationship. With the U.S. men's national soccer team, the same principle often follows.
I began devoting some serious time and energy to this team during the 1990 FIFA World Cup. I was a student at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and I sought out the grainy satellite-television feed at a local Italian men's club in order to catch the Americans' group games against Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria.
Back then, it definitely was new and exciting. But as Americans grew leaps and bounds as a soccer-loving nation, we learned to sort the wheat from the chaff ... so to speak. As more games involving the national team made their way to our television screens, we became informed consumers of world's favorite sport.
And that's why Wednesday night's CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal between the United States and Panama at Reliant Stadium in Houston feels like such a kick in the teeth. Yes, the U.S won 1-0 on a goal by Clint Dempsey in the 77th minute. But while the result was the desired one, the way it was achieved was lacking.
Coach Bob Bradley has lost the plot. For the second straight game, he's started Landon Donovan ... the best attacking player in U.S. history (!) ... on the bench. There were off-the-field reasons for the omission in the quarterfinals, but to repeat that tactical faux pas in a match with such ramifications is unforgivable.
With that in mind, the first half against Panama rolled across our screens in slow-motion. Despite the best efforts of U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan to provide link-up play, Clint Dempsey and Juan Agudelo ... who once lived in Barnegat Township, N.J. ... were marooned up top without service into space or at their feet.
I immediately inhabited Bradley's mind and certainly didn't like what I saw. Yes, he was saving a fresh-legged Donovan for a second-half sprintfest toward a tired Panama defense. But that was totally predicated on U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard and his defenders retaining their shape until reinforcements could arrive.
Who knew that the so-called fire brigade would come in the shape of midfielder Freddy Adu, the forgotten man of U.S. soccer? My sons Alex and Ben and I chatted with him in the tunnel of the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in June 2008 after the U.S. tied Argentina 0-0 in a high-spirited friendly.
Even though the U.S. didn't score a goal that night, Adu made a huge difference in the way the U.S. team sprayed the ball around the turf in the second half. But his career went off the rails, with his name almost becoming a punchline. Who knew that on a humid night in Houston in 2011, Adu would rescue his name?
The one-time savior of U.S. soccer played a delicious diagonal ball from the center of the pitch toward Donovan, who was lurking on the right. Within a few seconds, the ball found itself at Dempsey's feet at the far post and was then deposited into the net with aplomb. Not a bad return for Adu, who has labored in the shadows for far too long.
But I'm still smarting from Bradley's disdain for the soccer-consuming public in this country Wednesday night. The last time such arrogance was shown was when manager Steve Sampson cut captain John Harkes ahead of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. Whatever the reasons (and they have been well documented), it was the wrong decision from a soccer sense.
But, we soldier on. And with an extra-time win over Honduras in the other semi on Wednesday, Mexico moves on to the Gold Cup final against the U.S. on Saturday night. And even though I'll be in the extreme minority, I'll want to watch the game with my Mexican friends the Figueroas and Corteses. Heck, who would want it any other way?