For most soccer fans in the U.S., the opportunities to watch the Republic of Ireland team in action have been few and far between in recent years. The team’s last U.S. Cup appearance was 1996, when it finished second. The magical World Cup season of 1994 remains a joyous, though fading, memory.
Today’s Irish squad may not be the borderline international powerhouse its predecessors were, particularly with the absence of the injured Roy Keane, but it is an intriguing group nonetheless. The team that arrives this week for a three-game set in the Nike U.S. Cup is one that boasts a mix of young and old, experience and inexperience. There are the likes of Robbie Keane, a dangerous striker who, at just 19, already bears the mark — and burden — of greatness. And there is the seemingly ageless Niall Quinn, who, with more than 70 international caps, remains a force up front. There are, as well, World Cup ’94 veterans Terry Phelan and perhaps Steve Staunton. And Phil Babb and Jason McAteer, both of whom earned their international wings in that World Cup but, for whatever reason, have yet to reach the potential projected for them by former manager Jack Charlton. The list goes on.
It would be a stretch to expect great things from this Mick McCarthy team. It is still very much a work in progress. But with World Cup qualifying set to begin later this year, this might be an ideal time for the Irish squad to begin displaying a defining personality.
The Irish open play this Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago against a Mexican team that FIFA has ranked eighth in the world. Then it’s off to Foxboro, Mass., where Team USA awaits on June 6 in a rematch of 1996’s hard-fought American victory. Finally, New York-area fans who can’t get away for the midweek game at Foxboro (we’re sure there are a couple) will be able to see Ireland play an up-and-coming South Africa side June 11 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Win or lose, just having the Irish team back in the U.S. for a meaningful competition is reason enough for soccer fans to celebrate. Let the games begin.