When the The New Republic posted a collection of ruminations on the World Cup's most compelling players, I had to click—between editor Frank Foer, a well-known soccer nut, and the magazine's stable of contributors, it would be worth it. Who wouldn't want to read the Norwegian Proust's take on Angel di Maria?
There's just one thing missing from the list: An American player.
Now, the disparity is in part easy to explain: Half the fun of the Cup is the fantastic international cast of characters, and most American players don't play in the most-watched professional leagues. Still, TNR editors tell me they let their authors choose the players, and if this magazine can't find a single writer intrigued by a single American player, it's an ugly sign. TNR's coverage of team USA is worse than that of the hip-hop and fashion magazine Complex, who commissioned a cover-story about U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman.
(A special note of disappointment for Jess Walter, the only participating American author, who profiled Portugal's villainous Pepe.1 His delightful novels will never read the same again.)
This is just one example of American media's self-loathing relationship with soccer, akin to The New York Times' embarrassingly parochial ongoing coverage of soccer as a foreign affectation for hipsters.
So instead of yet another rumination on Spain's Xavi (have you heard enough about tiki taka yet?) or Italy's Pirlo (great hair, old legs), a more thorough package might have considered the most fascinating American team assembled since 1994's wild-haired outsiders. They are, technically, the 13th best team in the world, according to FIFA.
And yet there's no appreciation for the literally magisterial (say it like Ray Hudson) Tim Howard in goal, legitimately one of the best keepers in the world? No interest in the mercurial Jozy Altidore, a case study in sports psychology and the power of confidence? Or, for a handy metaphor, the controversy over dual national players is more or less the age-old question of what makes an American.
For me, the most compelling story is of Michael Bradley, the best U.S. player in the tournament. He's the engine of this U.S. team, a box-to-box midfielder who controls the pitch with steely determination. Charged with delivering the set-up play that will deliver America goals and victory, he's the crown prince of American soccer: His father, Bob Bradley, was a professional manager and the manager of the U.S. team who brought his son along, dodging charges of nepotism even as he took U.S. soccer to some of its greatest success before his ouster in 2011.
The Bradleys are convinced that U.S. soccer doesn't get the respect they deserve (add TNR to their bulletin board material), so the chip on Michael's shoulder is no accident. He's American soccer in a nutshell: resentment channeled into sublime play. Unsmiling, stern, and driven, Bradley earned the nickname Il Generale while playing for Roma in Italy, and though he shares his name with one American general, he plays more like Patton: It's no coincidence that most gorgeous goal of the U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign began with Bradley surging straight into the gut of Panama's defense before laying off the key pass. And we all remember what happened when Patton ran into the Germans.
Editor's Note: There were, to our knowledge, three American writers who contributed to the package.