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Monday, July 12, 2010

Soccer: We Get It...We Just Suck At It

Let me start by saying I am not an anti-soccer snob. I played my first game of soccer sometime around 1973 when I noticed a game being played on the field next to the high school up the street from our home in Berwyn, Pa. I was riding my bike home from a friend's and stopped to see what was going on. There were some kids and about two or three adults. "Hey, want to play?" "I guess." I was pressed into service and put in the goal.

Up to this point I was a three sport participant, Pop Warner football in the fall, rec league basketball in the winter and Little League baseball in the spring. No where near the best on any team, I worked my butt off to stay on the team. Now here was another sport. When I entered Junior High I tried out and made the team, it seems soccer has a position for guys who are not the fastest or strongest but who have stamina. I became a midfielder as I could run the whole game, not the fastest but able to keep going.

When we moved to New York I was on the freshman squad in high school. That year the New York Cosmos in the now defunct North American Soccer League signed Pele, the Brazilian superstar. He came to our school and put on a clinic for us. I'll never forget his opening talk that lasted ten to fifteen minutes. He walked up and down juggling a ball that never hit the ground--we had never seen such incredible touch.

When we moved to Brussels my sophomore year I joined the team there, again not the fastest, strongest or best kicker, but someone who could stay out on the field and just keep going. Our coach was a former player for Liverpool and the English squad sometime in the 1960's; our colors were white and red and patterned after The Reds. My junior year I had a letter to the editor in Sports Illustrated when I wrote that the NASL would benefit from the European practice of not interrupting games with commercials but rather put the sponsors logos on the screen during live play. This year ESPN and ABC finally got the message with their coverage of the World Cup.

Having lived in Brussels during the 1978 World Cup and experienced the passion of the people. While Belgium did not qualify neighboring France, Germany and the Netherlands all had teams in the the draw. At the time very few homes in the country had televisions, Belgium itself had two channels for the entire country, importing two each from France, Netherlands and Germany for viewing. Bars would be full with patrons slowly sipping their Stella Artois or Maes Pils to make it last through the match. Department stores would turn over their display windows to banks of televisions with speakers set up outside and the sidewalks would be crowded with spectators watching the games being beamed from Argentina. Belgium is officially bi-lingual (note "officially" unlike America) with the northern region, Flanders, speaking Flemish which is a Dutch dialect and the southern section, Wallonia, speaks French. Brussels, the capital, is in Flanders and is bi-lingual; all the signs are in Flemish and French. They do not like each other very much the Flemish and the Walloons, and tend to gravitate to the host nation of their language.

Holland made the finals of the 1978 World Cup and Belgium was somewhat crazy with the prospect that it would bring home the Cup. Alas it was not to happen and Argentina won its first cup.

Since then I have followed, as well as I can in a country that has not really followed, the World Cup. Not to the extent that I can whip off the winners of all the Cups, nor know all the world stars of the game. But I understand the depth of the sport throughout the world and our place as an also ran in the sport. I "get" soccer. Maybe a bit more than some of those who are arrogantly suggesting those who criticize the sport do not "get it."

Soccer is not a success in America for many reasons. The marketing ability of the NFL and NBA to capture audiences. The lack of a solid league that has built fan bases that translate into butts in the seats and eyeballs on the screen for games. But mainly soccer does not succeed in America because we suck at it.

Just about every four years we are hyped by the covering network that "this could be the year that the U.S. Soccer Team breaks through at the World Cup." "If the U.S. squad does not advance this year it will be a disappointment." And we don't. This year we lost to Ghana, a country with a population of about 23 million people and our trip to the Finals was once again derailed. In 2014 our boys in Brazil will get bounced and not make the semi-finals. Why? Because we suck.

With a population in excess of 300 million people from which to draw twenty five players we have the masses to produce a team that can get through all the regional qualifying, but once we meet the elite we are not one of the elite. Our soccer athletes just are not as good as those from other teams and may never be.

It is a bit frustrating to think about. Across the country we have millions of kids playing soccer through AYSO, school and college. There are a lot more kids and young adults playing soccer than there are playing hockey, and yet our national hockey team reaches the elite levels. Why? Because in other countries their best athletes tend to play soccer and then hockey. Our hockey team consists of our third level "best" athletes, as do our soccer players.

And that is why when it comes to international soccer we suck at it. We are not sending our best athletes, nor our secondary athletes, to the game. If we did the rest of the world would bitch and complain and try to ban us from playing the game. Our national soccer team is the one thing we give the world that makes them feel superior to us. If there was a national effort to win the World Cup in 2018 we would win. But at a price.

What if our national team consisted of Kobie Bryant, LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Reggie Bush, Brian Urlacher or any of numerous professional athletes in our country who chose basketball, football or baseball for their careers? Can you imagine a secondary back from almost any top ten college football team playing soccer? What about an outside linebacker on defense? No country comes near our in producing the number of athletes with the size, strength, speed and athleticism as the United States. None of them play soccer.

Once the top athletes have decided, usually by the end of high school, to play one of the big three, the other athletes then dilute themselves among the secondary sports, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, volleyball, swimming and in many areas baseball is included in this group. It is rare that the top athletes are playing one of the non-revenue producing sports, so rare that any top athlete that does play one of these sports is a superstar.

For those who lament that soccer is not popular in America because we don't "get it," I say, you don't get it. There are enough of us who have played the game, coached or watched our kids play the game and been exposed to it to know the game and "get it." What you don't get is that we don't watch the games because we know we are not watching our best athletes participate. When a network turns over an hour of programming so a soccer player can announce he is going to play for whatever the name of the team in Miami is called, then we might win internationally.

Until then, soccer will remain a secondary sport and the United States will remain a secondary power in international play.


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