The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Great Expectations

Posted by steigs on April 16, 2008

So DC United’s season is off to a bumpy start.  A couple of shutout losses on the road in league play already, with the 4-0 loss to Real Salt Lake one of the worst games I’ve seen the team play in years, and eliminated from regional play by Pachuca.  The grumbling/worrying/complaining has begun.  Perhaps the off-season changes aren’t helping.  Perhaps it’s time for a new coachEtc.  That’s what fans do.

This comes down to expectations.  We United fans have high expectations, at least in MLS terms.  We’ve had a winning team for four years now, with the best regular season record in MLS the last two years.  It might be different if we were rooting for Real Salt Lake or Toronto where just getting to the play-offs would constitute a good year.

Other teams I root for have even higher expectations.  Look at Celtic.  Two consecutive league titles and back-to-back trips to the round of 16 in the Champions League.  Pretty good.  Oh, but they’re in second this season in Scotland and, perhaps more importantly, keep losing to Rangers.  Heck, they’re having trouble even getting a goal on their eternal rivals.  (I hope that changes today.)  Cue talk about coach Strachan moving on.  It’s like what happens to an Ohio State or Michigan football coach who can’t get a victory in that rivalry.

There’s Arsenal, now clearly bound for third in the EPL and knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool.  Cue complaints about the failure of Wenger to bolster his young squad.  At the beginning of the year, most didn’t expect the young team could contend for the league title but a nice early run had the Gunners in first place for months.  They even managed to play with some style, like notable recent championship teams coached by Wenger.  This should be seen as a successful rebuilding year and now would be the time to talk about missing pieces to add — a world-class center defender, perhaps? — but now it doesn’t feel as successful.  Hopes were raised.  Expectations grew over the course of the year.  And, as students of revolution will tell you, it’s always when expectations are rising that rebellions are born, not when everyone is ground down and dispirited.  Still, no one thinks Wenger is going anywhere.

Finally, mighty Barcelona, stumbling to second (or third?) in La Liga but still in the Champions League.  Superstars on the wane, with talk that Ronaldinho, Deco, maybe even Henry to leave after the seasonNot to mention coach Frank Rikjaard.  One would think a run to the semi-finals of the Champions League would count for something.  But the expectations for Barca are so very high — win the league, contend for the Champions League, and do so with massive style.   It’s tough to meet them for very long.  Time to bring in a new manager, the old one’s running out of steam.

So, back to DC United.  My expectations are high — I want the team to win and I want to contend for the MLS Cup, plus continue to qualify for regional tourneys.  If MLS set up its competitions as they do in Europe, we’d actually be coming off of two league championships in a row — but both would have seen flops in European competition (as the counterpart to our play-offs).  We’d be looking at our team like fans of Inter Milan and Real Madrid do, with some frustration and disappointment. 

Ah, but of course, we don’t set up our competitions that way.  With the MLS regular season counting for so much less than a European season, we’re going to be happier if the team performs as Liverpool and AC Milan have in recent years — “good enough” in league without necessarily threatening to win it and then excelling in Champions League runs.  (Of course, I really want a “double” like Manchester United is going for this year — league and Champions League — but my expectations would be met with an AC Milan/Liverpool type of performance.)  I also want to keep playing in regional tourneys.  One of these days we’ll beat a team in Mexico and, in the meantime, maybe we’ll learn something and keep building our name with Latino fans in the US who have all too often looked down on MLS. 

Expectations matter.  The last two regular seasons have led to rising expectations — we seemed clearly best in the league, making the play-off crashes all the more frustrating.  Just as, I imagine, an Inter fan is getting ticked off by a team that cruises to the Serie A title yet can’t make a real run at the Champions League.  I’m trying to lower my expectations back to what really matters to me. 

Which is, in a roundabout way, why I’m not particularly upset yet.  If it takes Soehn and the DC United folks another month to get Gallardo and the rest of our attackers in synch, so be it.  If it takes another month of formation tinkering, so be it.  (Please don’t play three at the back again, though, unless they’re three regular defensive starters.)  If it takes a month to get Emilio putting balls in the net regularly, so be it.  Maybe it’s time to figure out if Quaranta is there to spell/learn from Moreno or sub for Olsen at right wing or a mixture of the two.  And so on. 

Because as we’ve learned the last two years, it’s not the first few months that determine whether our expectations are met — it’s the last few weeks of the season.



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