Monday, June 29, 2009

Rambling about Soccer

us_soccer_ball2-736935Me: My Name is Bob, and I love soccer.

All of You together: Hi, Bob.

No, not the soccer that you think you know. Not the soccer that your 6 year old plays because you don't want them to get hurt in "real sports". Not the soccer you roll your eyes at when someone tells you for the millionth time it "is the next big thing".

I am talking about the soccer that every freaking country in the entire world lives for. The sport that is so consuming that most other countries do not require other sports to fill the off-season.

Soccer, when done properly - which our country has never really done with one of its domestic leagues - is as intoxicating an athletic endevour as you will find. And don't tell me its boring. "It's boring" is what your wife told you about baseball, and you knew that she might never know what she was missing.

And yesterday, was one of those moments when I thought that just for a brief moment, soccer might become mainstream.

Playing in its first FIFA tournament final EVER, the United States gave it all they had to try to take down the most legendary foe of them all on the world soccer stage, Brazil. Brazil is the only country in the world to have won the World Cup 5 times, and also the only country to have played in every World Cup ever played. When it comes to having an win to brag about, beating Brazil in a FIFA final (even if it was just the Confederations Cup) would have lasted for a long, long time.

But, alas, after holding a stunning 2-0 half-time lead, the magic flipped to the Brazilian side, and a clinical 45 minutes which included 3 goals, 1 goal that was not allowed due to a bad call, and several other close calls showed that the Brazilian's had a switch they could flip that our young Americans (and 98% of the rest of the world) had no answer for.

After the win over Spain, and the close-but-no-cigar effort against Brazil, it is clear that the United States is playing pretty well. Or is it? Before going to South Africa for the Confederations Cup, their last 2 World Cup Qualifiers were very disconcerting, with a loss at Costa Rica, 3-1, and a Houdini-like escape in Chicago from Honduras. World Cup Qualification is certainly not a given, and with a trip in early August to Mexico, things might be awfully tricky in the final wave of qualifiers if they don't build on this tournament and next month's Gold Cup.

Obviously, I have presented two different ideas in this entry: The micro-view of making sure the Nat's head back to South Africa next month for the World Cup, and the macro-view of wondering where soccer is going in our United States.

The micro-view should be fine.

What of the macro-view?

Guys like Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey performing so well on the top level is a wonderful product of steady growth in this country. We now routinely have players playing professionally overseas in the top leagues in the world. The one thing we lack is the superstar on the world stage who can take on Kaka, Robinho, Ronaldo, or Torres on a regular basis and win his share.

Our domestic league, the MLS, continues to slowly grow, and it would seem that it has helped greatly with development of many young American players. But, the grip it has on the American sports fan and media remains largely comparable to the WNBA or perhaps the senior golf tour. It exists, and it apparently gets sponsors, but as far as generating waves of new fans...not so much.

The growth of soccer in the United States in the last 10 years, in my opinion, has more to do with the growth of English soccer on television and on the web. Many of us now closely follow Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Arsenal with far greater conviction than the MLS team in our own city. It is not an insult to FC Dallas, it is merely listening to our inner desire to see the best. Just as if we grew up in a city that had a minor league baseball team, but still cheered harder for the major league team that was hundreds of miles away. Many of us enjoy FC Dallas, but are obsessed with a team across the ocean.

Where am I going with all of this? Good question. I was going to write about the game yesterday, but instead decided to kind of give you my feelings about where soccer is going. A win yesterday over Brazil would have been monumental, but since most people have no idea what the Confederations Cup is, I suppose it would have been the same short-lived story that the women's team had when we saw the famous Nike Sports bra 10 years ago.

For soccer to ever be as big as many of us who love soccer want it to be, we will need our Tiger or our Lebron to come along and carry the sport. And not in Columbus, Ohio, but rather in London or Barcelona. On the biggest stage. Dirk Nowitzki made basketball much bigger in Germany, but not because he stayed and played in Berlin, but because he went to play in Dallas.

It would seem to me that the same would be true for Landon Donovan. Watching him play on that level during this past week has me thinking that he should consider another move across the ocean. Dominating in San Jose or Los Angeles will not capture the hearts of the US sports fan - we want to know if he can beat those Euros. He tried Germany twice before, but he was young and missed his girlfriend. Now, he is older and richer, and perhaps he is ready to not only play on a team in England, but to play well as one of their key players. Or, maybe it will be Jozy Altidore, who at just 19 is already in Spain playing professionally and seems to have all sorts of potential.

Brazil does it that way. Almost all of their national team stars play in Europe. Almost none of them play in Brazil. Then, they all reunite to represent their country and do it quite well. Brazil still has domestic leagues, but it is more to provide development for the youth and entertainment for the locals rather than to be a destination point for their best.

That is the template for US Soccer in my estimation. And it is happening. Many of our best are playing roles in Europe. We just need that superstar to come along and capture our imagination. Trouble is, in the USA, the superstar athlete has football, basketball, baseball, and many other choices that may lure his gifts from soccer. Brazil is looking for soccer stars, we are looking for running backs, point guards, and center fielders. Sometimes, soccer just gets the left-overs. Can you ever be a national power if you are only harvesting left-overs against the best from Brazil, Spain, Italy, and Germany?

Yesterday showed us progress is being made. But in the big picture, our journey continues on. I am curious where it shall take us.

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