Two profound losses. Two different paths to move forward.
On Saturday, the U.S. men found their progress in the World Cup thwarted once again by Ghana. The USA has climbed slowly to soccer respectability, and while this game could've gone either way, no one can doubt the country's soccer program still hasn't produced a Cup contender.
Also Saturday, Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko suffered the first substantive loss of his career. The ramifications are huge for Strikeforce, which bet heavily on Fedor's marquee value, and the UFC, which opted against such a bet and now has a strong claim that the winner of its upcoming heavyweight title bout between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin is the No. 1 heavyweight. That would give the UFC a clean sweep of its weight classes in the USA TODAY/SB Nation consensus rankings. (I have helped to develop the ranking system, but I do not vote.)
Comparing the two, the question is whether it's more difficult to ascend to a sport's peak or re-ascend to it.
In U.S. Soccer's case, the answer sounds like a cable company's voice mail: They're aware of the problem, and they're working on it. Over the past decade, U.S. Soccer has revved up its talent identification efforts, expanding from a small youth academy in Bradenton, Fla., to a nationwide Developmental Academy league. Commentators wring hands over missing Hispanic talent and favoring big, athletic guys, but the USA's previous scouting mechanisms somehow missed a big, athletic guy in Jay DeMerit, who had to work his way through obscure English leagues to gain the national team's attention.
Changing the coach consumes less time, and it's typical to see a change at the top after a World Cup, no matter the result. Coach Bob Bradley made a few missteps, most notably starting the overmatched Ricardo Clark against Ghana and using Oguchi Onyewu when he was obviously not fit, and his bland personality makes him an easy target for detractors. Yet Bradley did a far better job than most coaches in getting his squad to be greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly high-priced England coach Fabio Capello could take a few lessons from Bradley in getting his team to avoid embarrassment on and off the field.
The Bradley decision will draw plenty of attention in coming weeks. But the long-term talent efforts will be far more important down the road.
Fedor Emelianenko may not appear to have such long-term concerns at first glance. Upon toppling the giant, Fabricio Werdum said he would gladly offer a rematch, and Fedor seems interested in accepting. But he'll need more than revenge to reclaim his perch atop the sport.
In the buildup to his fights, Strikeforce kept repeating that Fedor was the No. 1 heavyweight and, more controversially, No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter. Now-defunct promoter Affliction tried the same approach, as if sheer repetition would make it true.
Yet Fedor never seemed all that interested in proving that claim in the cage. In his last two fights, he may well have been losing before landing one well-timed punch that changed the fight.
Apologists may say Fedor got "caught" -- an MMA term suggesting the loser wasn't outclassed but simply beaten by one good punch or submission attempt. Others may say he "caught" a couple of opponents in matchups he should've dominated with greater ease. Against Werdum, he made a shocking error more commonly seen among young prospects on The Ultimate Fighter, hastily attacking on the ground while leaving himself susceptible to the combination of armbar and choke that beat him.
Fedor's place as the top heavyweight in the first 15 years of MMA history is secure. While the UFC struggled to put together a viable heavyweight class, he beat the best of Japanese promotion Pride, fight after fight.
But in the last five years, a class of powerful heavyweights has wiped aside the old guard in the UFC. Because Fedor and his M-1 Global company have refused to make a deal with the UFC, he hasn't faced them. Instead, he lost to a fighter who was 2-2 in an 18-month UFC stint.
Fedor is still young for an MMA fighter at 33, though he bears the scars of a long, busy career. He's not too old to rededicate himself to proving his status as a universally acclaimed No. 1.
The questions are whether he realizes the need to do so, wants to do so and knows how to do so.
With U.S. Soccer, we at least know the answer to the first two of those three questions.
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