American Acceptionalism: What Went Wrong at the World Cup?

Since their near-coup in 2010, Team USA’s results have receded with each major international tournament – silver in Vancouver, fourth in Sochi, and now an 0-3 flop at Toronto’s World Cup. What’s happened? And why has Canada only gotten better while it’s closest rival has sputtered?

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

The engraving is being outlined. The victor is at the door. And the vanquished, of course, are searching for soul.

It’s been a week – or something like that – since Team USA bottomed out of the World Cup. It wasn’t like they completely failed or flunked or embarrassed themselves, although that’s what’s been reported. Not because it’s really accurate, perhaps… but because it’s fun to make fun of the most obvious loser. (Keep in mind: pretty much everyone paid to write, read, or speak about the sport they cover is more interested in warts and rumours than they are in sober dissections. And that’s not on them only – it’s on us, too. Who the hell wants to watch boring, flaccid TV? We don’t want calm and precise coverage, especially when panels or talk shows are the format. We want screaming and forehead veins and premature zit-popping. Right? So the heads that talk also fulfill our stomach lining with the fat we love but still also shame. How else can you explain the 24-hour media coverage and forced, half-assed debate that followed a pretty funny, self-deprecating, couch-born Tweet from the uninvited Phil Kessel? Rogers created a story, they sucked it dry, and then they drove the Magic School Bus right over Kessel’s bewildered brain.)

The narrative is that the World Cup was a ‘disaster’ for Team USA – as it was for Finland then, certainly for Russia, and even the Czech Republic when you consider that Team Misfit Toys (Europe) is in the final. But it wasn’t all bad… in fact, the Americans showed plenty of jump, plenty of potential, and plenty of pop during the World Cup. They just didn’t show it at the right time, and they – no longer a sleeper since their effort at the 2010 Olympics – refused to hold home court.

Read: ‘Team USA brass accepts blame for World Cup of Hockey failure‘ (The Star)

The Americans scared the hell out of me, a Canadian, in the prelims. They went 1-1 against Crosby and Co, and I thought they were the better of the two teams across both games. But when they fu*ked up and lost that first game to Europe – a thrown-together budget assembly of Slovakians, Danes, the Swiss, Germans, one Frenchman and one Slovenian – they lost their grace period. After that, they had to beat the Canadian buzzsaw just to stay alive. And despite a couple posts and three goals that kept things interesting, the Canadians mostly mowed through Fast Food Nation. This wasn’t surprising and, if it wasn’t an elimination game for the Americans, it’s probably excusable. Give Canada a third crack at you, you’re most likely going to lose. And this isn’t anything new.

In fact, even when Canada was stuck in that 52-year gold medal-less drought, and even after their truly humiliating quarterfinal failure at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, the red-and-white have always been the favourite in every single best-on-best tournament. They don’t win all the time… in fact, they’ve lost a ton. But look at the jubilation of any Russian or American or Swedish or Finnish team that beats Canada, pretty much at any level or any tournament or any game, elimination or not – it’s clear, Canada is the big bad boogeyman, and the villagers love to chop down its syrup-syringed trees.

To borrow from Alex Ovechkin’s most recent excuse, Canada’s worst finishes have almost always been due to a couple predictable factors – the team either doesn’t have any built-in chemistry, unlike European or American programs that are basically raised and boarded together from birth to podium, or they’re not in mid-season form. (Ovechkin blamed Russia’s uninspiring World Cup performance – as well as America’s and Finland’s – on the tournament’s timing, because it’s being before a new NHL season and not while one’s underway, like the Olympics always is. He seems unaware that Canada also has summers and that its players, also, enjoy them.)

But since 2010, the hockey world has been under Canada’s thumb. A new generation of international heroes made their big-stage debut basically all at once at the Vancouver Olympics – Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook (if he still counts), Patrick Marleau, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, and of course Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. The going in Vancouver was initially stale, but Canada exploded in the playoff rounds, slapping the hell out of Russia before they went to the wire against a surprising Slovakia and a speedy, blue-collar America. And from then on, that core of players and the newbies they’ve since brought in – Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, Claude Giroux, Brad Marchand, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Jeff Carter, Jamie Benn, P.K. Subban, Carey Price and others – have only gotten closer, gotten better, and gotten better together.

Forget the Blackhawks, the Kings, or the Penguins. Hockey’s only real dynasty right now is Canada. That heroic Vancouver showing was followed up by one of the most dominant teams of all-time internationally in 2014, in Sochi, with a couple World Championship golds thrown-in, annual contending at the World Juniors, and now the same group is making a mockery of the World Cup.

Canada’s challenge was never whether it could assemble the most talented lineup, or even the best lineup – their challenge always was, Can an All-Star team (Canada) consistently beat the practiced, polished, and familiar-with-each-other lineups of Russia, Sweden, Finland, or the United States? And for the most part, it was kind of a toss-up. At the Olympics, at least. Since the NHL first allowed its players to participate in the Olympics, starting with Nagano in 1998, Canada was either winning a gold medal or it was finishing off the podium. A 4th place finish in Japan was followed by gold in Salt Lake City, a 6th or 7th place finish in Turin, and then gold in Vancouver. Then, gold in Sochi. And, if the World Cup is to be considered a similar accomplishment, Canada’s about to win gold in Toronto in 2016, too.

But why am I talking – gloating, really – so much about Canada when this “article” is about the United States and its hockey program? Because the former is getting it right and the latter isn’t. And because of their styles, proximity, and fraternity with each other, even though hockey is far from America’s first sport like it is Canada’s, you have to compare the two to each other whenever you’re playing Operation with one.

Whereas Canada took its close call in Vancouver as an alarm, the Americans took it as the new normal. At least, that’s how it seems. So consumed with always being the faster, feistier alternative to Canada’s letter jacket-wearing stud, the United States hasn’t tried to evolve or improve. The Americans were grittier, pluckier, and mostly harder-working than Canada in 2010, but they’ve taken that status for granted. They’re already weren’t as talented or as skilled as Canada – but now, they’re no longer grittier than Canada either. Canada’s best offensive players – Crosby, Bergeron, Marchand, Toews, Getzlaf, Perry, Giroux, and Benn, for example, and even Stamkos or Tavares – are all tougher and testier than pretty much anyone on Team USA. (Save for Ryan Kesler’s weekly cheap shot, of course.) And Canada’s defence is nasty, led by Keith, Doughty, Weber, and the rest.

In fact, if the Americans cleaned their mirror, they might see that the only way they can compete with Canada is to focus on skill and scoring. Their next wave of young stars is enough to terrify anyone above the 49th – with Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Shayne Gostisbehere, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba all possessing as much firepower as they do sticks, rocks, and kindling. Eventually, they’ll join Patrick Kane and Joe Pavelski and Dustin Byfuglien and Max Pacioretty and the rest of the sharp-shooting senior Stars and Stripes members in 2018. And once you add them all up, it’s not a stretch to say the Americans are the second-most talented team in the world – ahead of Russia, ahead of Sweden and Finland, behind only Canada, and just barely.

But will it matter? Will the American management group keep selecting grinders and role players and grit?

I’ve heard another excuse recently, something to try to explain why the United States’ World Cup was over almost immediately after it began… it essentially goes like this:

Because there had to be a Team North America, and because every player aged 23 or under had to be on that team or on no team at all, the Americans were robbed of some of their best offensive players.

Well, not bloody likely. Considering that Brian Burke and Co ignored fully-qualified and imposing players like Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk, and to some extent Bobby Ryan, I’m gonna bet than only Gaudreau would have made the senior American squad. If Kessel or Johnson or Shattenkirk were somehow left off the roster in favour of third-liners and role players like David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, Justin Abdelkader, or Erik Johnson, I’m doubting Eichel or Matthews or Gostisbehere or Jones would have been given a chance. The American brass also chose John Tortorella to coach their team – a man who values shot-blocks over actual shots.

(After the tournament, Tortorella seemed as clueless about the loss in defeat as he was in preparation: “I think that in the whole process of building this team, we did not think, up the middle, we could go talent-to-talent when playing Canada,” he said. “So we thought about playing other ways. But I won’t sit here and listen to people say, ‘This team is a bunch of grinders.’ They’re not. The No. 1 thing we looked at with this team is, ‘Do they care?’ And this team cares.” Of course, whether you’re building a team of grinders or a team that cares, my quite basic conclusion rings true – next time, build a team that scores.)

They didn’t just go for sandpaper, they went for sand. It’s one thing between trying to find a mix of role players, depth players, and scorers… but it’s quite another to pick your team as if you don’t want to score. As if you want to win a hockey game the way no team in history has, but outscoring the opponent 0 to -1.

I mean, hell… even the American Ryder Cup captains have picked better teams recently.

The result isn’t what’s troubling for Team USA or its national program. They’ve had worse, and so has Canada. It’s the thinking that should worry the Americans – their fans, their captain who’s over 30, even their young players on the assembly line. And it gets worse when you read Tortorella’s comments above, or the other comments from GM Dean Lombardi. Because even in defeat, you hope the appropriate people have learned something, and these guys haven’t.

In 2010, the Americans were on the right track, clearly ascending toward some goal of parity with the world’s best. In 2016, they’re still there, jogging in the sand like Rocky and Apollo training for the biggest fight of their lives, not realizing their future is already their past.