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OP-ED: The Real Turning Point

For the first time in 80 years, the United States has won its World Cup group.  It’s one of those statistics that seems so absurd that it can’t be true, except it is.  And the internet is ablaze with people talking about the “turning point” for U.S. soccer.  In the past 24 hours, Google has tracked 377 news stories including the terms “turning point” and “soccer”.  Some commentators claim that, like the commercials foretold one second changed everything.  Others suggest it might be the promised land: the time when soccer becomes an American sport.  While some naysayers persist, others, including Time magazine, are proclaiming that the U.S. could win the whole darn thing.

And while I don’t mind more people to talk soccer with, I think the bigger story has gone untold.  Maybe it’s because we’re all scared that we’ll jinx things.  But if now’s the time to talk about turning points, let’s talk about the one that actually makes an on-the-field difference for the MNT . . .

The United States isn’t getting railroaded by the referees at this tournament.  Now, that may be hard to swallow with two disallowed goals in two matches, but now that we’re riding the high of winning the group, embrace the good mood and hear me out.  I won’t argue with those who say the officiating at this World Cup has been “even more obviously incompetent” but referees are effectively incompetent.  They’re overwhelmed with information and responsibility and asked to make nation-affecting decisions.  It’s not an easy job and mistakes are plentiful.  All teams and fans can ask is that the referees make a genuine attempt to call the match fairly.

For years that simple standard of officiating seemed to elude the United States.  In last year’s Confederations Cup, the U.S. became one of the statistically dirtiest international soccer teams ever.  We had three straight reds in five matches — only one other team had received even a single red card.  And we played short-handed so often, I think we all forgot what it was like to have 11 men on the same field wearing the same jersey.  And the 2006 World Cup . . . well, let’s not go down that road.

While there’s no evidence that any referee intentionally affected the outcomes of U.S. matches, the compendium of potentially game-changing calls that went against in the U.S. certainly made it feel like our guys were outnumbered every time they stepped onto the field.

But so far, we’ve received only 6 yellow cards and no reds.  Not one.  And 12 have been issued in this World Cup. We’ve committed fewer fouls than we’ve suffered (43 to 44).  And while some howlers aren’t getting called in our favor, let’s face it: we’ve been lucky a couple times as well.

While we’re being honest, if this World Cup were called against us the same way the Confederations Cup was, we wouldn’t have won our group. Living on the edge is harder with 10 men, though arguably it leaves more room on the ledge for each man.  And perhaps we have just gotten lucky because there’s a minefield of dangerous referees in this tournament, including:

So perhaps it’s just a matter of time until we start seeing red again.  But maybe it’s more than that: maybe the U.S. finally has earned a little international respect.

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