More on soccer: Maybe this is how good, or bad, we are?

Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 11, my two “home” teams, the United States and Sweden, will enter the battle for the championship in the women’s soccer World Cup in France. My hope is that not only will they both advance out of Group F but that they will later meet in the finals, for the American women’s fourth World Cup title, or for Sweden’s first, after two third place finishes.

But, meanwhile, let me, with your indulgence, of course, add some thoughts to my previous blog post, where I expressed the view that the future of U.S. men’s soccer, after a dreadful loss by the U.S. men’s team against Jamaica, 0-1, was to be found among the young Americans playing in the U-20 World Cup in Poland.

I stand by that statement, although the U.S. U-20 team then lost to Ecuador in the quarterfinals, 1-2, and is out of the tournament. The young Americans lost to a stronger team, but they could have won – it was close – and they continued to show courage and imagination, and continued to battle, until the end.

None of this was seen in the second dreadful performance by the U.S. men’s team as it was preparing for the Gold Cup, starting on June 18, losing to Venezuela, 0-3, after another listless, but also mistake-filled, performance.  Coach Gregg Berhalter had slightly changed the team’s formation against Venezuela, but, still, with only one striker at the top, a lonely Gyasi Zardes in the first half and a somewhat more involved Jozy Altidore in the second half. The team’s offense was toothless, and the team, as a whole had no speed and no energy.

A team is always a reflection of its coach – just look at Jürgen Klopp running up and down on the sidelines during the matches, and his Liverpool with its relentless energy, enthusiasm, and readiness to battle. Berhalter’s team has none of this. He says he has a plan, but what? Up to now, it seems more of the same, a tinkering with formations and the strategy of cautious and defensive soccer, where the two center backs strangely have most of the ball, passing it back and forth, back and forth before, maybe, advancing — boring; slow; unimaginative –no one dared.

Is that American soccer? Is that what we have been waiting for since the calamity of the Klinsmann/Arena era? America’s soccer fans do not have much patience for this waiting game. So without success in the coming Gold Cup, a victory, or, at a minimum, a loss in the finals after a tournament of fun, energetic, courageous, and imaginative soccer, Berhalter’s job might not be safe, although he has only had it for half a year.

Or, maybe, we simply have to realize, and settle for, that this is the state of U.S. men’s soccer today. This is how good, or bad, it is, and we can only put our hopes in the next generation and enjoy the U.S. women in their quest for another world title.

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Soccer: The young Americans in Poland are showing the way

I love soccer, and I have for years closely followed the U.S. men’s national team, hoping, hoping, for that final breakthrough that would to put them among the elite teams of the world, like the U.S. women have been for years.

This week was one of stark contrasts. I saw the future of U.S. soccer when the U-20 team impressively beat highly favored France at the U-20 World Cup in Poland. Then I saw a U.S. national team preparing for the Gold Cup by losing to Jamaica in an utterly listless and boring match, promising nothing but more of the same for a team in deep crisis ever since it failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia last year.

Beating France 3 – 2 in the round of 16, the young Americans in Poland advanced to the quarterfinals where Ecuador, on Saturday, is the next opponent. The match was well-played and exciting, with the young Americans showing off skills and tactical savvy seldom seen even on the men’s national level. First leading, and then trailing 1-2, the U-20 team showed no sense of panic, or even nervousness, and roared back with a vengeance, scoring first the equalizer and then the go-ahead goal a few minutes before the end of the match.

The victory was well deserved. All the players, a mixture of U.S. and European based, can be proud of their performance. But some of them were more than good, they were excellent, in particular the center forward, Sebastian Soto, who scored two goals and has turned out to be a true poacher. Soto, who plays for Hannover in the German Bundesliga, made no mistakes when he twice, after excellent runs and equally excellent passes from Tim Weah of Paris Saint-Germain and Richard Ledezma of Dutch PSV Eindhoven, put the ball passed the French goalie.

The backline, in spite of a couple of mistakes, was also impressive, in particular center back Chris Richards, who plays with Bayern Munich, and the two fullbacks, Sergino Dest and Chris Gloster –- with Ajax in Holland and Hannover in Germany, respectively. And the midfield was solid, led by the captain, Paxton Pomykal, from FC Dallas.

There is depth and cohesion to this young American team and there is no reason it cannot go all the way, although competition will stiffen further as the tournament advances. They have been a joy to watch through the four matches so far. They attack, in a 4-3-3 formation; it’s a fun, exciting, with speed and creativity you wish the U.S. national team would copy, but, regretfully, lacked in its 0-1 defeat to Jamaica. The team’s defensive 3-4-2-1 formation, with one lone striker, generated little offense and just a couple of scoring chances. Jamaica’s win was never in jeopardy.

Yes, it was a friendly, and coach Gregg Berhalter was said to be experimenting, but a week before the start of the Gold Cup, time is running out. Much more is needed of what the young Americans in Poland are showing for the future success of U.S. soccer.

A Scandinavian ski fest in the City of Lakes

Under Lake Street BridgeIt just didn’t get any more Scandinavian here in Minnesota than during this weekend in Minneapolis, at the City of Lake Loppet Festival – the urban cross country ski festival — with perfect winter weather, clear blue skies, a warming sun, deep snow, and with over 10,000 cross country skiers of all ages on perfectly groomed trails racing through the city, from park to park, from lake to lake, to the welcoming finish line at Lake Calhoun.

There, among all the spectators, former long-time Minneapolis mayor R.T Rybak and one of the founders of this over decade old tradition applauded the arrivals, whether they had just completed 10 kilometers or a marathon at 42 kilometers. Rybak, himself, started off the Luminary Loppet (by the way, “Loppet” is Swedish and means the race) on Saturday night on trails lightened by hundreds, if not thousands, of ice lanterns. The Luminary Loppet was sold out — 7,000 participants — one of 21 events, which included dog sledding, a snow sculpture contest, ice-bike racing, and more.

All funds from all the racing fees go to the non-profit Loppet Foundation’s youth activities, encouraging skiing and other outdoor activities among, so far, 6,500 children in the North Minneapolis schools.The Loppet Foundation

Luminary LoppetThe night was cold and all the stars were out night during the Luminary Loppet with ice lanterns showing the way as the thousands of skiers went around the lake, stopping now and then to taste the hot chocolate distributed by hundreds of volunteers by the warming bonfires on the frozen  Lake of the Isles.

It was all pretty special, especially for a Swede who grew up skiing in the old country and whose father lived and loved this sport more than anything — the best form of exercise in the world, he used to say.

Finish Line in City of Lakes LoppetI remember going with him to Swedish cross country championships and the World Championships in Falun way back in 1954, when it was minus 20 (Celsius) and a skier named Vladimir Kusin from the Soviet Union won two gold medals. My father skied until he was almost 90 years old, and my older brother successfully finished the classic 90 kilometer long Vasaloppet in Mora in Dalarna, the mecca of Swedish cross country skiing.

They would have loved this past weekend in Minneapolis just as much as I did. I only regret I didn’t bring my skis. Next year, maybe!

Obama won the last debate but will it matter?

And so the last of the four TV-debates in the presidential election campaign is over and in only two weeks, America will choose a new president.

The debates have played an important role in this campaign, more important, perhaps, than in many a year, maybe since John F Kennedy met Richard Nixon in the very first debate in 1960 and upset the favorite, the sitting vice president.

In the first debate in this year’s campaign, the challenger Mitt Romney knocked the socks off a sleepy Barack Obama and became a serious challenger to the president. Obama’s listless performance let Romney into the race, a race that the president at that time led comfortably. And then, Romney held his ground pretty well, although the judgment is that Obama won the two following debates –last night’s by 48 percent to 40, according to CNN’s first quick poll, and by 53 percent to 23 according to CBS News.

Still, it was a fairly even debate where neither candidate committed any major mistakes. In fact, you could argue that there was no real debate, for Romney had decided to hold back, lie low, be cautious, and be presidential, or something. All his earlier criticism of Obama’s foreign policy was gone, replaced by broad consensus between the two about America’s role in the world and president Obama’s foreign policy.

On Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, the war on terror including the drone attacks against terrorists in various countries, and, yes, even on Libya, Romney took positions very close to Obama’s. By refraining from attacking Obama, Romney had clearly made a decision not to seem like a war hawk, not to seem belligerent and someone seeking new conflicts and new wars for America in the Middle East. By doing so, he moved towards the political center, towards a more moderate policy – he became a “man of peace,” as someone said, probably jokingly, afterwards.

Romney’s transition seemed to startle Obama a bit, although the president kept up his attacks, calling Romney’s foreign policy “all over the map” and charging him for trying to “air brush history.” And while expressing his satisfaction that Romney now supported the administration’s diplomatic efforts in that volatile region, Obama could not refrain from sticking it to Romney when possible. Romney’s charge that the U.S. navy now has fewer ships since 1916 was met by, maybe, the “zinger” of the evening – Obama saying that the military now also had fewer bayonets and horses than in 1916…

Why the subdued, cautious Romney? Was he playing it safe in a race that now seemed more even than ever? Maybe. But as a result, he came to stand in stark contrast to a firm, straight talking, decisive president, who said he had done what he promised to do when he became president, and that he was the best one to lead America in the next four years.

Will what happened in this final debate matter? We don’t know yet. The two previous debates between Obama and Romney had each been watched by almost 70 million people. Last night’s debate most likely had fewer viewers. Foreign policy is not the main theme of this campaign. And most voters seem to have made up their minds by now. The number of undecided are very few and the remaining two weeks of the campaign will be more about getting out the vote — turnout can decide this election, which is so crucial for America and this country’s future.

Yes, I believe it’s now time to talk about a turning point

Home again in Washington, DC after two weeks in the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, primarily to participate in the publication on September 20 of my book “Amerika – drömmarnas land” (America – country of dreams) in Stockholm.

Nice book release party at the Dance Museum in Stockholm with many old friends, a book discussion at the ABF educational association with journalist colleague Stig Fredrikson, a lengthy interview on the Knowledge Channel about the book. The American election campaign is the center of attention in the Swedish newspapers and on radio and television. The coverage is amazingly extensive.

On the way back home, a short visit with good friends in Reykjavik and a lunch seminar at the Icelandic Foreign Ministry about my book and the U.S. elections. Lively and fun!

The return home came just in time for today’s big event, the first of three televised debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But before that, I will also head to the ballpark to cheer on my Washington Nationals on the last day of the regular season for winning the National League Eastern Division and for taking the local baseball team to the playoffs for the first time since 1933!

Tonight then, in Denver, Colorado? I remember the first TV debate ever, in the autumn of 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. for the first time. JFK won the debate and he won the election, albeit with the slimmest of margins. Ever since then, the importance of these debates has been discussed. The conclusion? Not unanimous. Sometimes, as in 1980 when Ronald Reagan faced Jimmy Carter, Reagan came out on top and then won the election. Sometimes, as in 2004, John Kerry won dthe debate but George W. Bush the election. And last time, in 2008, the debate winner, Barack Obama, also won the election.

The Washington Post summarizes the situation ahead of tonight’s debate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog that something had happened after the two party conventions but that I did not want to call it a turning point in the campaign. Since then, the situation for Mitt Romney through a series of mistakes, especially his talk about America’s “47 percent,” has steadily weakened. And now the conclusion is inescapable: we have reached a turning point. Obama has strengthened his position on a wide front and time is running out for Romney.

To reverse this trend, Romney tonight needs not just to have a major breakthrough, but he also needs a major mistake, a major gaffe, by Obama. That is unlikely to happen.

A glorious evening of big time soccer

I went to a big time soccer game last night, of which there are not, alas, many on a regular basis in America. I was there, at FedEx Field where the Washington Redskins usually rule, with 67,000 other people, including an American friend, who had not seen much soccer before last night, but who came home a fan.

How could he not be? The evening was soft, the atmosphere exciting, joyous and friendly. In the stands were Americans, Brazilians, Latinos, soccer moms and soccer dads with their sons and daughters, coaches with their young players. In 90 minutes, it was all done — not an eternally long, and constantly interrupted game, like in baseball or American football.

Yes, Brazil beat the United States, 4 -1, what else is new? Brazil is just the best, and the American side was never close to winning. It seemed, in fact, that in spite of all their big game experience with the national team around the world, and with their clubs in Britain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Holland, the Americans were intimidated by their opponents, at least in the first half. They lacked resoluteness, speed, toughness, even energy.

But it was a glorious evening anyway, a big night for American soccer. As this sport continues to grow in this country, I have no doubt that the United States will be a true power house in the world’s biggest sport.

Want to read more? Here is Sam Borden’s excellent piece in today’s New York Times.

Go Caps — Go Sweden!

Tonight, the National Hockey League’s playoff for the Stanley Cup starts for me, with my home team, the Washington Capitals, facing the Boston Bruins in Boston.

“Go Caps!” But I also want to add: “Go Sweden!”

Like millions of NHL fans around the world, I have two loyalties: the team itself and those team members from my home country. In my case, they are Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, two of a total of 59 Swedes all around the NHL — more, even, than the Russians (42), Czechs (40), Finns (21), Slovaks (10) and the handful of German speakers.

Yes, the Canadians and the Americans still dominate – you only hear two national anthems before each game – but the internationalization of the National Hockey League is a fact and in full view on its website, the only truly multilingual site of any major sport, with eight language versions: English, French, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Czech, Slovak, and German.

The Major League Baseball website has only three foreign languages, Spanish, Japanese and Korean, while the National Basketball Association, with its huge international following and all the players from Europe, Latin America, and Asia, is only in English.

Now, Sweden has only one player in the NBA, Jonas Jerebko of the Detroit Pistons, so I can understand the lack of a Swedish language site, but come on…Spanish, Chinese, Serbian, Croatian, Russian, Turkish, German.

We all really wish our country men to do well, so now you understand: Go Caps — Go Sweden!

Boston, beware…