There might not be a tougher subject to write about than soccer. Americans writing about the game essentially have two paths to choose before they begin typing. I can choose to cater to the soccer enthusiast by using Euro-slang and being sarcastic and hyperbolically critical of everything (Women’s World Cup this summer … psshh, who wants to watch a bunch of birds having a kickabout, but I will say Heather Mitts is well fit. Am I right, lads?).
Or I can choose to dumb down my commentary to the point where it passes being engaging to casual readers and becomes insultingly condescending, much like Fox’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League Final with the NFL crew breaking down the game like they were broadcasting the first soccer match ever viewed by human eyes. Although I will say it was charming to hear Curt Menefee send it down “to the pitch” and it was a nice touch to have legendary English goalkeeper David Seaman providing his insight. Oh wait, that was legendary American goalkeeper Brad Friedel? I couldn’t tell the difference, they had the exact same accent. Well I guess we now know which path I’ve chosen …
Fear not, fringe fans of soccer who tune in once every four years during the World Cup, perhaps even by accident or just to have some small talk topics in your back pocket for the office. I’m not going to chide you for not appreciating the “beautiful game”. I’m not going to speak down to you, and I’m not going to even try to convert you into a fan. It’s okay with me that you don’t like soccer. I get it. I equate soccer to Indie rock … some of it is the most inventive and interesting music out there, and some of it is completely un-listenable. My favorite band ever is Superchunk, but I’m not going to be that guy who has some deep cut off of “Come Pick Me Up” blasting when I turn on my car so I can easily transition into a conversation about how much cooler I am than you are because you don’t get it. This isn’t going to be that kind of piece about soccer. I’m going to try to split the difference here.
Having said that, I will point out that soccer’s place in our sporting society is growing more rapidly than expected. Participation has never been an issue in America … there are over 3 million registered youth soccer players (US Youth Soccer Association) between the ages of 5 and 19. That’s more card-carrying members than the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, and as many participants as Little League and Pop Warner combined. In addition, there are nearly 400,000 adults who are either USYS licensed coaches or referees. Adidas USA sold 6.5 million national-team replica jerseys during the 2010 World Cup. Oh by the way, Nike outfits our National Team, so those numbers largely reflect sales of Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Germany and other popular “non-USA” jerseys. More importantly, American networks are broadcasting more live, high-definition professional matches from European leagues than ever, with the English Premier League becoming a regular on ESPN and the UEFA Champions League being split up between Fox and ESPN. In this non-World Cup summer, it’s fair to say that soccer is taking center stage in America over the next few months.
World Football Challenge
The brilliant idea that is the “World Football Challenge” returns to the US this summer after taking a year off to make room for the World Cup. It’s an odd event of sorts because the MLS participants are still in the middle of their league season while the European and Mexican clubs are in pre-season. Still, some of the most important soccer clubs in the world will be playing in the US again this summer, which is never a bad thing at all. The inaugural event in 2009 brought nearly 1,000,000 fans to stadiums across the United States with each match being broadcast in full by ESPN. In the midst of an increasingly intense battle for American dollars, the best clubs in the world return again for 2011 as Manchester United, Manchester City, Club America, Real Madrid, CD Guadalajara and European Champion FC Barcelona have all signed on for the event. The Challenge will consist of 11 matches in 11 cities with two showstoppers as the “must watch” matches of the tournament: July 16th’s matchup between Real Madrid vs. LA Galaxy and the Champions League Final rematch between Manchester United and FC Barcelona on July 30th in Washington, DC.
CONCACAF Gold Cup
The Gold Cup is the biggest event within CONCACAF, or the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, and features the top national teams under the confederation’s jurisdiction. This year’s edition brings with it an important carrot on the end of the rope for would-be champions as the winner of the event will advance to the FIFA Confederations Cup, which is an international competition of all of the champions of each geographic confederation. By virtue of a 2-1 victory over Mexico in 2007, the US team advanced to the 2009 Confederations Cup where the Americans reached their first international 2nd place finish ever by beating Spain 2-0 in the semifinals before blowing a 2-0 halftime lead against Brazil and losing 3-2 in the final. In the last installation of the Gold Cup, Mexico destroyed the US by a score of 5-0, but since there was no Confederations Cup qualification on the line, the result didn’t matter and ultimately nobody cared, Mexico. This year is for real again, however, and each nation will be sending their absolute best to try to bring home the Cup.
But aside from the obvious immediate impact of the Gold Cup, the 2011 tournament serves as fork-in-the-road signage for the US national team as we begin to prepare for the 2014 World Cup (if there is still a FIFA in 2014, that is). The arrival of the next international challenge for our boys in red (or are we wearing blue this year, Nike?) will bring countless opportunities for all of us to re-live this … the most important sports moment in American athletics history. No, I didn’t mean to link to a video of the Miracle on Ice. First of all, I wasn’t old enough to remember it, so it doesn’t count. But there are so many factors that make Donovan’s goal in the 91st minute against Algeria transcend all other sports moments in USA history.
First, it’s Team USA. Nothing unites our country more than a defining moment by USA in international competition in a team sport. Second, it was the right player. Heaven forbid Landon Donovan gets a slight touch on the ball before Edson Buddle pokes it home from the back post. Even if Clint Dempsey sneaks it under the keeper instead of providing the all-important rebound, you lose the impact. Forget that Dempsey is a far more important player to the US than Donovan in the grand scheme of things. He’s beloved in England because of his classic goals for Fulham, not because of his exploits with the US National Team. Landon Donovan IS soccer in the United States. It HAD to be his goal. Third, and though I will always show much respect for the “Do you believe in miracles?” call as probably the greatest sports call in broadcasting history, Ian Darke did pretty freaking well for himself with his reaction to the goal. It won’t surpass Al Michael’s famous catch-phrase, but “Go, go, USA” are three words will always give me chills when I think back to that moment. What impressed me the most about Darke’s performance was his decision to shut up and let the pictures speak for themselves, only deciding to speak up again when John Harkes tried to provide some analysis but was too emotional to get his words out.
Lastly, and this is why it leaves behind that great upset in Lake Placid, it happened in 2010, not in 1980. Prior to Landon’s goal, any ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ … well, you just had to take their word for it. But with this goal, you had this, and this, and this, and this. And of course, this too. Sports fans all over the world, in one moment, connected in real-time by technology. When Disney cashes in down the road in 20 years by making a movie about this moment, I won’t have to explain to my son (who was a year old at the time) what it was like when Landon scored. I can just have him access those videos using the microscopic computer implanted in his brain and he’ll know first-hand what it felt like.
While that scene will be played over, and over, and over, leading into each broadcast, it sets the stage for what I feel is the most critical period for the growth of US soccer on the international stage. It’s like saying, “Ok, USA. You have our attention. Now what?” Let’s start with the coach …
Many of us who follow US soccer are somewhat surprised Bob Bradley is still our coach. Though the overall reaction to the US losing in the Round of 16 was that our showing was acceptable, it stung to see how the tournament opened up completely for the US. That, coupled with the opportunity to cash in on the attention that Landon’s goal earned the team, led many to believe that the US could attract a big-named coach to lead our national program. While our federation flirted with some high-profile candidates, in the end, Bradley’s contract was extended. As with any contract, the commitment is subject to change without notice, and you have to think that this year’s Gold Cup is a key piece of Bradley’s evaluation. This is a tournament that the US SHOULD win, but the perception seems to map our rival Mexico on an upward trend while our outlook seems to remain stagnant with no signs of that next superstar in the youth ranks.
Speaking of “that next superstar”, Freddy Adu is back. Adu became a household name at the “age of 16” (in Danny Almonte years) as the next Pele. He struggled to find his place on our senior national team as he was no longer able to leverage what set him apart in the youth ranks … his quickness, his ball mastery and footwork, and his ability to vote, drive, and buy beer. His highlight for US Soccer came in the 2007 U20 World Cup where he captained the US team into the quarterfinals. Following that deep tournament run, Adu’s progression stalled as his teammate Michael Bradley’s took off, and it began to seem as if Adu would never fight his way towards fulfilling his initial promise. It is safe to say that the 2011 Gold Cup is Adu’s last chance. Hopefully he’ll do better with his lance chance than DeMarcus Beasley did with his at the World Cup.
Although I wish I could also claim a “put up or shut up” ultimatum for Jozy Altidore, the team selection for the Gold Cup has communicated that he is literally the only striker in our country. In short, his job is safe. But it will be interesting to see if we have anyone else who can put the ball in the back of the net. Charlie Davies is still on the mend, so he’s going to miss his second straight international tournament. To use layman’s terms to describe guys like Robbie Findley, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle and other experiments to run with Jozy … they suck. This tournament is a huge opportunity for youngster Juan Agudelo to become that all-important second (LOL, I mean first) goal scoring threat. For the US to be seen as a player moving forward to the 2014 World Cup, there must be a forward with star power. Mexico has Chicharito. It remains to be seen if we have an answer. We sure as hell don’t have an answer defensively.
To take a strong first step towards qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the US will need to answer four basic questions between the opening kick against Spain this weekend and the final whistle of the Gold Cup … can we identify and play to our strengths using smart tactics and careful preparation, can we maintain organization defensively to avoid giving up those head-scratching scoring chances we seem to allow each time out, can we keep enough possession to apply legitimate pressure to our opponents, can we find that guy who can consistently score during the run of play? At least we don’t have a lot of holes to fill over the next three years.
All in all, I just hope our boys fare better in their attempt to win the Gold Cup than I did in my attempt to avoid writing like a grumpy soccer fan. Oh well, at least there’s plenty of footie on the tele.