Soccer Omnibus Post
I apologize for my noticeable absence around here of late. That is largely the result of real-world commitments, but on top of that, the free time I have had has been spent passionately following the magnificent spectacle that is the World Cup. Here, then, is my attempt to provide you with 4 posts-in-1 giving my thoughts on the tournament so far, what it says about the US team, and what it means for the future of soccer in the United States.
1. The American Soccer Team Is No Longer Taken Lightly
Since its upset of Portugal in the 2002 World Cup, the US National Team has repeatedly demonstrated that it is capable of providing the traditionl soccer powers with a real challenge, particularly when it plays a meaningful match against them on a neutral field and is indeed capable of pulling off the occasional upset.
The difference is that the rest of the world seems to have finally taken notice. That’s not to say that we’re a global soccer power – not even close. But it is to say that our boys are no longer likely to be overlooked as easy prey. To the contrary: by developing a respectable side, the USMNT’s scalp is now a prized possession in some quarters. Admittedly, this is primarily due to our political hegemony, but that hegemony wouldn’t mean much on the soccer field if the US soccer program was still lowly regarded (no one much cares about beating the American Eagles in rugby, for instance).
2. Soccer Is Unique
I’ve always thought that attempts to compare sports by saying one sport is better than or as good as another sport are simply idiotic. Low-scoring sports are not inherently better or worse than high-scoring sports; sports with lots of breaks in the action are not inherently better or worse than sports with only a break for halftime, etc., etc. I suspect that the tendency to try to compare soccer to more “American” sports is thus a significant part of why soccer has never caught on much as a spectator sport in the US, with most Americans caring about it, at best, once every four years.
I get the sense that the US-Slovenia and, especially, US-Algeria games may have started to get the casual American sports fan to start judging soccer on its own terms. Both games were exceedingly entertaining and provided the sort of emotional roller coaster that can only exist in a sport where scoring is exceedingly difficult and where ties are a common result. A 2-0 deficit midway through a hockey or baseball game is a mild obstacle; a 2-0 deficit midway through a soccer game is a chasm, and a comeback therefrom, even against a mediocre opponent, is cause for massive celebration. A stolen TD on a phantom holding call can be made up for on the next down, meaning that it will not evoke the passion and outrage of a stolen goal on a phantom, uh, holding call. And even in the biggest football, baseball, or hockey game, you are not on the edge of your seat from the opening whistle or pitch, desperate for even one score, living and dying with every pass attempt, pitch, or trip across the red line; the only analogy I can think of is that every single soccer game involving two half-decent sides can have the feel of a Steven Strasburg-Roy Halladay pitcher’s duel, except without the breaks in between pitches and innings.
This is not to compare soccer to any of these sports, though. Instead, it’s just to say that one cannot really appreciate soccer if you watch it on the same terms as you would watch other sports. The justified outrage over the ref’s decision in the Slovenia game to disallow Maurice Edu’s goal, and the 90 minutes of pent-up emotion released upon Landon Donovan’s semi-miraculous injury time heroics, I think may have finally forced many casual American sports fans to start evaluating soccer on its own terms.
3. The US’ Love Affair With Soccer Will Remain a Quadrennial Phenomenon
In spite of the above, I cannot subscribe to the growing meme that the Slovenia and Algeria games (combined with the 1-1 “victory” over England) have made soccer “grab [a] hold of the United States as it has the rest of the world.”
Perhaps more than any other sport, soccer requires a rooting interest to fully and consistently appreciate it as a spectator. Goals may well be spectacular and enjoyable even for a neutral, but they are also exceedingly rare. Even quality scoring chances requiring a spectacular save occur only a handful of times in a given match. While a well-run passing game can be beautiful and appreciated in its own right, there are only a handful of teams even on the club level that are capable of running such a game against even the toughest of defenses. A low-scoring, defensive struggle, which happens somewhat frequently is simply difficult for a neutral observer to appreciate, especially as so much of a quality defensive effort centers on off-the-ball positioning. By comparison, the average defensive slugfest in football or hocky usually involves plenty of hard, crowd-pleasing hits, a low-scoring baseball game spectacular defensive plays and strikeouts, and a low-scoring basketball game emphatic blocks and rebounds. But in soccer, you mostly get a lot of passes that never get attempted or, if they do get attempted, sail out of bounds or get unspectacularly intercepted.
So in order to become regularly invested in soccer, one really needs a rooting interest. Unfortunately, the only real candidate for most Americans is the National Team, which plays only sporadically and which, due to the nature of CONCACAF, largely involve games against desperately inferior teams. Worse yet (at least in terms of maintaining American interest), Sepp Blatter, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that CONCACAF is deserving of three automatic bids, meaning that the US and Mexico are virtually guaranteed to survive the World Cup qualifying rounds even when they perform poorly. So there’s not much incentive for the casual fan to care even about the qualifiers.
What about MLS, you say? While MLS certainly has its merits, and has done a wonderful job of developing talent, I cannot imagine any realistic circumstance in which the average American sports fan begins to care about it. Americans are used to following the best sports leagues in the world, and MLS is unlikely to ever be mentioned in the same breath as the Bundesliga, much less the Premier League, La Liga, or Serie A. Even if it could become that good, it would still be only one of several high-caliber leagues. In some ways, we care so much about the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL because the champions of those leagues have an automatic and legitimate (if technically inaccurate) claim to “World Champion.” Unless the US and MLS inexplicably sought and obtained approval to transfer to UEFA from CONCACAF, the MLS champion will never even have the opportunity to compete for a globally significant title. Americans, rightly or wrongly, will thus continue to pay it the same amount of attention as we pay to AA baseball.
4. Landon Donovan Is Sublime
While I was long a Landon Donovan critic, his maturation on the field over the last year or two has been nothing short of astounding. There’s never been any question about his skills, but he also seemed incapable of reaching his full potential, disappearing in important games against quality opponents, showing a clear preference for being a big fish in a little pond to even testing the waters of a big pond, and lacking the killer instinct so necessary in a player to attain elite status. Now, 8 years after he burst on to the scene in South Korea, at a time when he should be beginning the downside of his career, he has not only reached his full potential, but he has also indisputably unseated the great Claudio Reyna for the title of best American soccer player of all time.
Thankfully, all the doubts I had about Donovan started to be answered after his performance last summer in the Confederations Cup, and had completely disappeared a week or two into his successful loan to Everton. This has allowed me to simply appreciate him these last few games for the talent and leader that he has become – every time he has laid a foot on the ball has been joyful, and obviously none more joyful than his touch in the 91st minute yesterday. Remarkably, yesterday was, on the whole, his least good match of the tournament thus far (there were long stretches where he seemed to disappear and I thought Steve Cherundolo or Carlos Bocanegra were more deserving of Man of the Match honors), which just shows the astounding quality he’s displayed at this tournament. Perhaps more importantly, he is also clearly the heart and soul of the team, and the spillover of his attitude has made this the most enjoyable American team to watch in my lifetime.
Bonus Thoughts: Why does coach Bob Bradley still have doubters? I also never understood why Bradley’s critics insisted that his son Michael’s prominent role with the national team was solely a result of nepotism; Michael has been by far the team’s most reliable and consistent center midfielder almost from his first appearance with the national team, and his performance in this World Cup has been no exception…..
After the US, England, and Germany got the results they were supposed to get yesterday, combined with the emphatic victories of Portugal and Spain, it seemed like order was going to be restored at the World Cup and all the traditional powers (save the deservedly miserable French) would survive the opening round. Then Italy went down in a shock 3-2 loss to Slovakia. You can’t help but wonder how much of a parity-inducing force the Jabulani frisbee ball is continuing to be, especially when you also consider that one of South Korea, Uruguay, the US, and Ghana is guaranteed a spot in the semi-finals.