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The Big Pitcher – Fool’s Gold

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Last week, CONCACAF announced a plan to pit the winners of the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup tournaments against each other in a playoff to determine who gets to represent the continent at the 2017 Confederations Cup. In practice, this is because otherwise none of the teams really cared about the 2013 Gold Cup, just as no one did in 2009 and so on and so forth.

They would bring weakened teams, allowing their starters to rest after World Cup qualifiers and rejoin their MLS teams or take a bit of a break before going back for the European preseason. This, in my opinion, was not a bad thing, and the reasons why have a lot to do  with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez and that game last month at the Azteca.

Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez probably won’t play in this summer’s Gold Cup – not unless Jurgen Klinsmann wants to open his hotel door one evening to find a very stern-looking Peter Vermes tapping a length of pipe on his open palm while Bruce Arena slips on a set of brass knuckles behind him. But the emergence of a potential Besler-Gonzalez center back pairing is exciting not just because of their quality play in the harshest away environment this side of the lunar surface, but because at 24 and 26 the pair still have a fresh out of the box feel to them. Never mind that Geoff Cameron is only 27; this is the Tandem of the Future!

“Future” is the most dangerous word in international soccer; we look to it as if through a pair of binoculars, desperately trying to adjust the focus to get a clear glimpse while missing everything that’s around us. A section of the fanbase, and the wider sporting press, has spent the career of our Best American Player Ever (and the Guy Who Might Be Better Than Him) looking to the day when we’re going to produce the Best Player Ever. Now we might not even have replacements for the first two guys.

You can see why this is appealing. Only around eight teams per cycle stand a realistic chance of winning the World Cup. Underdogs, big underdogs, just don’t win the tournament, at least not since 1950, and what small surprises it has to offer involves things like “Italian defense” and “Diego Maradona.”

But is the World Cup the only prize that matters? We’re conditioned by American sports to feel that anything less than the title at the end of the rainbow is a failed season, but are 199 FIFA nations utter failures? And if not, then what are they playing for? A Final Four WC bid? (Curse you, Frings!) Continental supremacy and the five bonus armies per turn that comes with it? Other trophies, a stockpile Gold and Confederations cups and perhaps soon the occasional upset bid at the Copa America? How do you balance a team’s needs between today and a tomorrow that might never get here?

The years of reps Michael Bradley earned in the center of the park back when he really was a young, immature coach’s son prone to stupid cards have undoubtedly helped him become the steadying force he is today. The jury may still be out on the years of reps Jozy Altidore has received at the top of the formation (That hurts to say. I’m a big-time Jozy apologist). But even when the forward pool was at its shallowest, a good percentage of his early caps were dealt to him with the future in mind, with the expectation that they’d accelerate his growth into an even more fearsome striker in the future, that he and Bradley and that Best Player Ever In-Waiting (Repeat after me: This never happened.) would get the nation closer to winning a major tournament.

That’s what was sort of nice about having an off-year continental championship. There’s a benefit to playing games, real competitive games, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter. Coaches can take the kinds of chances on youth that would ordinarily be calculated risks in small doses and career suicide in larger ones. And fans can get a free turn at the binoculars, parsing the future without sacrificing the present.

Josh Gatt could actually play on the right side, where at least the fact that he’s more one-footed than Long John Silver won’t lead to him dribbling across the center of the pitch into nine players. A John Anthony Brooks (Maybe? And even then he’d play with the U-20’s, but whatever) and Amobi Okugo centerback pairing isn’t the best second-tier centerback combination we could come up with, but it’s the most fun Fezzik-Inigo pairing of towering strength and skill on the ball on that side of the pool. Significant minutes for Juan Agudelo, who I never regret getting to watch play.

After the news of the new play-in game was announced, several well-connected soccer journalists suggested the U.S. and Mexico at the very least would still devote the majority of their efforts toward the post-World Cup tournament in 2015, fielding weaker teams at this summer’s event. Hopefully they feel the same way for years to come even after they see what tomorrow might bring.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for “The Other 87 Minutes”, their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of “the Tuesday 10” or the “Tuesday XI”. While attending Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts

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