Sports Nut

How Soccer Explains the World Basketball Championships

Why does the United States keep losing in international sports?

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony

In the wee hours of Friday morning, another American basketball team met its international Waterloo, losing to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship. This squad was supposed to be a corrective to prior failures, most notably a bronze in the 2004 Olympics and a humbling sixth at the 2002 Worlds. Yet once again, despite a more strategically built team and the Madison Avenue-minted genius of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the United States once again came up shy.

Cue the recriminations. According to the newspaper columnists and television pundits, the Americans lost because they relied too much on individual talent at the expense of team play. They didn’t pay attention to fundamentals and defense. They looked to make dunks and no-look passes instead of hustling for loose balls and setting screens. They were felled by hubrisitic arrogance.

Seems like we’ve been here before, very recently. Two months ago, the U.S. flamed out of the World Cup under a hailstorm of criticism. But strangely enough, the American soccer team was criticized for the exact opposite reasons. The players didn’t have enough flair. They were fundamentally sound but lacking in creativity and athleticism. The U.S. team was faceless, artless, and empty. They’re “trained monkeys” who are “incapable of having an original or ad-libbed thought on a soccer pitch.”

Basketball and soccer aren’t all that different, except in scoring rates. Both sports prize fast, fluid athletes who can think on their feet. Teamwork usually trumps individuality. So, why the contradictory excuses for America’s bad showings in international play?

The obvious answer is that the United States is better at—and cares more about—basketball than soccer. We were so good at hoops, the story goes, that we got arrogant, show-offy, complacent. And we’re so bad at soccer that our only hope is to coach our players until they become automatons. The more subtle reason has to do with race. When our white athletes lose, we accuse them of being unimaginative and overtrained. When our black athletes lose, we accuse them of playing street ball and disdaining fundamentals.

It’s time to retire the idea that SportsCenter ruined team basketball. Let’s also disregard the notion that gifted soccer players can come only from the barrio. Instead, we should examine each of these American squads on their merits.

The U.S. basketball team lost because it ran into an extremely hot Greek team in a one-and-done game. The Dallas Mavericks weren’t better than the Miami Heat, but the Mavs won the first two games of the NBA Finals. If the U.S. took on Greece in a best-of-seven series, they’d almost certainly come out on top. In a one-game showdown, the Greeks obviously had a much better chance to win.

The single biggest reason for the loss was the Americans’ failure to defend the high pick-and-roll. Greece ran this simple play on almost every possession after the first quarter for layup after layup. The United States’ lapses against the pick-and-roll don’t have anything to do with the me-first nature of the American player, though. This was a deficiency in scouting—Coach K and his staff should have been better prepared for Greece’s offense. But more than anything, team defense depends on reps and familiarity, something this hastily assembled team didn’t have. By the time the 2008 Olympics roll around, the U.S. defense won’t be a sieve.

Now, let’s look at the U.S. soccer team. As I wrote in June, the Americans’ failings in the World Cup had more to do with our guys failing to challenge themselves in the top European leagues than with the team’s supposed deficit in creativity. Besides, the United States could’ve done better with a dash of luck. Bruce Arena’s boys were stunned by an early goal and never recovered in the first game, played to an inspirational draw against the eventual champions, and lost a spot in the second round against a better team thanks to a dubious penalty. A different draw or different referees, and the Stars and Stripes would’ve advanced to the second round. But they didn’t. Sometimes teams just lose, social trends and racial code words be damned.

Is the United States too individualistic to win in international basketball? Well, the Americans destroyed pre-tournament favorite Argentina to win the bronze medal. The Argentines were supposed to show the Americans a thing or two about how team basketball works. Instead, the U.S. defense shut down Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade showed that he might be the best basketball player in the world.

Is America too uncreative to win in international soccer? Well, Greece won the UEFA title in 2004 by playing a decidedly unathletic and uninspiring style that nauseated a global viewing audience. The Greeks then failed to qualify for Germany 2006. The local reaction didn’t include screaming for a new style of play and new players, but rather fond remembrance of the effort two years before. Obviously, there aren’t enough Greek sports talk radio shows.

USA Basketball has two more years to prepare for the Beijing Games. U.S. Soccer has a long way to go before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. With better preparation, better intensity, and a little luck, our humble nation will succeed at both events. And if we lose, it will probably have less to do with the innate flaws of the American sportsman than with the teamwork and athleticism of the opposition. Other countries can be good at sports, too.