Monday, June 28, 2010

Soccer thoughts

For the second World Cup in a row, the United States soccer team met its end at the hands of Ghana with a 2-1 loss in extra time. Last Saturday's result was a big disappointment, considering that the US was at least nominally favored to win and also given the excitement that the US team had generated during this World Cup. However, it simply goes to show that US soccer still has a ways to go before it can be considered an elite program, as the AP's Nancy Armour argues:
With a cushy road into the semifinals theirs for the taking, the Americans showed they're still, at best, a second-tier team.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his players can bluster all they want about the progress they've made and how they can play with anybody at the World Cup. When they had a chance to move into soccer's elite, against a Ghana team they should have handled easily, the Americans came out looking flat and uninspired.

Ghana, they seemed to say, no big deal. Well guess what? It was, and it is. You want soccer to be a major player in the U.S. sporting landscape, like the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball? Then you can't sleepwalk through your star turns.

Okay, let's be honest about this: regardless of how successful US soccer is, it will never reach the same level as the NBA, the NFL or the MLB because, as I pointed out four years ago, the lack of offense makes soccer generally unappealing to the average American's sports tastes. But, given the size, diversity and overall appetite for sports in the United States, there's no reason that soccer could not one day rival the NHL (no offense, hockey fans) as a close second to those "Big Three" sports in terms of popularity. Soccer does not have to achieve the same status as football, basketball or baseball in order to nevertheless be a successful and lucrative part of the United States' spectator sport portfolio.

But it will never happen as long as disappointments such as last Saturday's continue to occur.

American soccer diehards have nevertheless tried to spin the loss, saying that the US team still accomplished a great deal in the 2010 World Cup. Chronicle soccer blogger Jose de Jesus Ortiz praises the "valiant" US side in spite of the loss:
Years from now, we'll likely look back and say that the 2010 U.S. men's national team — with the help of ESPN's extensive and brilliant coverage — helped cement soccer into the American consciousness. Moreover, the U.S. showing at the World Cup in South Africa and the support from the American public may also prove as a boost when FIFA considers the U.S. bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

Focus on the disappointment if you'd like, but I'd rather look at the big picture and appreciate the marvelous job the U.S. national team did in South Africa to represent their country with dignity while showcasing the American spirit.
Maybe so, bit I remain unconvinced, if only because this sounds like the same "this World Cup was a big boost for US soccer" spin we've heard every four years since the USA's return to the World Cup in Italy in 1990. If soccer is to gain a foothold in the United States, the national team simply has to win games like last Saturday's.

But they didn't. They came out flat, let the quicker and sharper Ghanians take control of the game, fell behind early, and couldn't take advantage of the scoring oportunities they were given. As a result, whatever momentum US soccer created in its home country by virtue of last Wednesday's thrilling injury-time goal against Algeria and their subsequent advancement to the "round of sixteen" has evaporated.

I'll freely admit that soccer is not my favorite sport. But I still watch, because I appreciate the physical ability, the supreme foot-to-eye coordination and the stamina of its athletes, and I can respect the importance the game places on patience and strategy. There are some aspects of "the beautiful game" I can do without - the flopping, diving and injury-faking is a big turn-off, the officiating is in desperate need of reform (Kuff agrees), and, although it will never happen, I still think that the offsides rule needs to be eliminated - but it would not bother me in the least to see soccer become a successful sport in the United States. It's an entertaining, if not exasperating sport, and as dejected as I was after Saturday afternoon's loss, I still took Kirby to the Dynamo game against Colorado at Robertson Stadium that evening and had a great time.

The fact remains: if the USSF, American soccer aficionados, and even FIFA, as I'm sure they've seen the ratings that ABC/ESPN's outstanding coverage of the World Cup have generated in the United States, want the game to generate a larger following within this country, then it's time for the US national team to take the next step on the sport's biggest stage. They didn't do that this time around. Which means a lot of second-guessing about "what could have been" and waiting for the next World Cup in 2014.

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