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Commentary Soccer and fun under the American sun

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Leo O’Connor

The Nike US Cup 2000. What does it mean to the Republic of Ireland squad of players, their manager, and Irish supporters stateside? One is tempted to offer, perhaps cynically, that it matters a little, but not a lot — at least in terms of competitive soccer. On the other hand, this visit of the Irish soccer team to the United States may prove extremely meaningful for all concerned on a lighter level.

The legion of Irish soccer fans in the United States is champing at the bit with the vision of seeing their favorites in action. They may not pack Soldier Field, Foxboro, and Giants Stadium in quite the same numbers as they did on that memorable day in 1994 when Ray Houghton swiveled and slammed a half-volley over the head of a stranded Italian keeper, leading Ireland to a historic victory in the first round of the World Cup. Nonetheless, these enthusiastic supporters will certainly support their Irish team in mass force, drape the Eastern United States in green and gold, beat goat-skin bodhrans, and once again bellow such heart warming chants as "You’ll never beat the Irish."

For some the opportunity to perhaps rub shoulders with their stars will be a significant bonus. Celebrations — of victory, defeat, or simply the joy of Irish soccer — are imminent.

For the players, too, this tournament presents a revitalizing breath of air, figuratively if not literally. They’ve endured a long bone-tiring season in the English and European leagues; sore knees, swollen ankles, and throbbing hamstrings will benefit from the reduced stress of a few friendly games in the American sun. We need only look back to Manchester United’s winter 2000 "break" from English Premier League action, when the league champions participated in the world club championship. Man U regarded the tournament seriously, but barely. More important, they focused, too, on the variety in lifestyle offered by a winter tournament in the sun. When the Red Devils returned to Premier League action, they were virtually unstoppable for the remainder of the season.

Of course, we can’t expect a comparable surge in form from Mick McCarthy’s troops, but the Nike Cup may well serve to temper the disappointment of a hard-fought, but fruitless struggle to reach the European Championship finals this June. The tournament is also likely to give the Irish engine a burst of fuel in preparation for the World Cup qualifying games, which begin later this year.

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For McCarthy this will be an opportunity to experiment with team selection and formations. The Nike Cup presents an ideal chance for team bonding, and confidence building. Winning the tournament remains the ultimate goal, but in the end — to paraphrase an Olympic motto — winning will not be as important as participating.

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