I’m thrilled to see two books on American soccer history being released in the same month. I’m absolutely biased in saying that, of course, because one of them is mine.
The other is Filip Bondy’s look at the U.S. men’s national team, Chasing the Game, which weaves recent and ancient history to tell the story of the team as it heads into the World Cup.
Bondy uses the same narrative device Jere Longman used in The Girls of Summer, flipping back and forth from chapter to chapter between the main story and background pieces on a particular player or some piece of history. It can be a little hard to follow, especially if you put the book down for a few days and come back to it, but it’s more interesting than giving a few chapters on history and then getting into the 2008-09 qualifying campaign.
Adam Spangler has taken Bondy to task for a few bits of questionable analysis. Such is the subjective nature of a sport that can’t be easily quantified in stats, though some news junkies may also disagree with his depiction of the Honduran political crisis of 2009. (Yes, it’s relevant to his story.)
Spangler also points out something else that brings us to the Great Dilemma of the Soccer Writer in Mainstream Media (GDSWMSM?): Am I writing for soccer fans, a more general audience or some mix of the two? Those of us who have been compelled to write an explanation of the U.S. Open Cup every time it’s mentioned in passing can empathize.
Bondy splits the difference, and it’s hard to argue with that. Heading into a World Cup, fans need different levels of edumacating. Some fans have no idea about the 1950 USA-England game or the intricacies of World Cup qualification. Some already know Landon Donovan’s and Walter Bahr’s biographies in detail.
What I always tried at USA TODAY was to include some detail, some anecdote or some quote that was unique. Bondy offers plenty of that. He fleshes out our image of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, showing him to be even more detail-obsessed than any of us imagined. For each qualifying game and each player described in detail, he has something most people didn’t know or hadn’t considered.
And Bondy is nothing if not thorough. He saw the qualifiers, and he interviewed the key participants. He goes back in history and talks with 1950 World Cup star Walter Bahr about the USA-England matchup of that year and this year. As U.S. World Cup histories go, he has a word from everyone except Bert Patenaude, who passed away 35 years ago.
Having been through the publishing process, I’m impressed that the book has come together so quickly. Six months before the review copy arrived, we weren’t even sure if the USA would make the trip to South Africa. In the book world, particularly outside the major publishing houses, six months is a tight deadline.
If the book seems rushed, though, it’s still worth the effort. It’s a great way to relive the ups and downs of qualifying while learning a bit more about what happened.
I’m again a little biased in the sense that I enjoyed reading about a few things I had witnessed first-hand, particularly the ad-hoc viewing party in which several reporters gathered around Sunil Gulati’s laptop in a Beijing sports bar to watch the USA win in Guatemala. But a lot of fans have their own memories that they’ll enjoy revisiting. And if you don’t remember anything that was written here, you need to read this book before June 12.