Monday, March 26, 2007

Sam's Blog - We’ve Come a Long Way Baby - March 26

Sam’s Blog will be a weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Director of Coaching Education for US Youth Soccer.

Soccer in the United States has progressed tremendously over the last 30 years. Yesterday, I walked into a restaurant in Warwick, R.I., and several televisions were tuned to the United States versus Ecuador men’s national team match.

I was struck by several revelations at once. First, that the match was on at all on a Sunday afternoon. It was not long ago that to see a United States match on TV you’d have to be a night owl and the broadcast would be often interrupted with commercials. Now this international friendly was on broadcast television without commercials during the match. Also, the commentators actually knew the difference between a corner kick and a goal kick and that you don’t head butt the ball.

I was also struck by the fact that the match was already playing on four TVs in the restaurant and my party, the soccer people, didn’t have to make a special request of the restaurant manager to get the game on. What’s more no other patrons complained about that foreign sport being on. As I watched the match I was impressed with the ever-improving abilities of our national team to compete internationally. Twenty or 30 years ago, we would have struggled to score a single goal against a talented team like Ecuador and now we control much of the match and score three goals.

The United States players on the pitch all play professionally, either domestically or overseas. Wow! There’s a large number of Americans playing abroad; once that number could be counted on one hand. Here at home, we have healthy professional and semi-professional teams both indoor and outdoor. Many of their matches are played in soccer stadiums. Holy kick-off batman! Soccer specific stadiums in North America are becoming the expectation. Some of those even have ancillary facilities to support local amateur soccer.

As I travel across our nation, I am continually impressed by the quality and quantity of our soccer facilities. If you build it they will come. No, they were already here. They played in parks, on the outfield of a baseball diamond, in a parking garage, someone’s yard, the beach, the mowed down corn filed, the vacant lot or the field the high school football team wouldn’t use and was sometimes used as a parking lot. Yes, they were already out there playing and because they were already playing, we built it. We now have soccer facilities to accommodate literally millions of players.

Now-a-days they will stay up till 3 o’clock in the morning to watch a live telecast of a World Cup match. And will do so in Nielson eye catching numbers. Not so long ago, you would have to drive to a distant city and pay to go in a theater to watch a closed-circuit telecast of a World Cup match. If the established order had been thinking they could have imprisoned all ‘those soccer nuts’ in one place. They, WE, have come a long way with the growth and acceptance of our sport. The soccer bashers, who once seemed to be more plentiful than stars in the sky, are now a minority.

Some sort of soccer reference shows up in more TV shows and commercials than ever before. Even Hollywood is in on the act with soccer movies. The Game of Their Lives… what a tribute to our 1950 team! Whether they care for it or not the majority of Americans know the World Cup takes place. Even the WNBA owes thanks for its acceptance to the groundbreaking success of the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team on national television.

I bet that if the Battle of the Superstars was still going on that more soccer players would be standing next to Kyle Rote, Jr., as a champion. Alright, I really aged myself there. See you next week on this same bat channel.


whip said...

We will have more of this soccer moment as soon as many youth organizations improve statistic to ease player tracking and scouting and many of our youth top players get more opportunities within MLS/USSF....

Charles Fischman said...

Sam Snow's March 26th column on the state of soccer culture in the United States details the acceptance of professional soccer as a spectator sport. The numbers watching and following MLS and European clubs and the US National Team at last seem to reflect the numbers participating in soccer. The numerous chances to watch soccer on broadcast and cable television and to follow soccer news via the Internet foster more spectating which in turn leads to even more programming. Although I fondly remember watching the 1978 Holland-Argentina World Cup Final on closed-circuit television at SMU’s Moody Coliseum in Dallas, I have gladly enjoyed watching as many of the 64 matches in each of the past three World Cups as I could, live, on cable in my own home, especially when it was a 1:30 AM kick-off. Back in 1978, I felt incredibly lucky just to see the Final.

As the Director of Coaching Education at USYS, Mr. Snow must appreciate the benefits of a rich soccer-spectating environment for the development of American soccer players. Watching Landon Donovan or Eddie Johnson, let alone Ronaldinho or Didier Drogba, on TV on a regular basis will inspire and teach soccer-playing kids in the same way that NFL, NBA, or MLB stars have inspired American football, basketball, and baseball players for generations. What will not help American youth soccer players is to make claims regarding soccer’s progress or its ability to draw attention compared to the NFL, the NBA, or MLB.

The September 3, 1973 cover of Sports Illustrated features Kyle Rote, Jr. challenging Bob Rigby for a cross high above the Texas Stadium turf in the NASL (North American Soccer League) Championship game. I know this because I have saved the issue as an important artifact. The magazine headline reads, “Soccer Goes American.” The article itself highlights the fact that Kyle Rote, Jr., NASL Rookie of the Year for the Dallas Tornado, and Bob Rigby, star goalkeeper for the league champion Philadelphia Atoms, were both Americans. The article deliberately contrasts the Atoms’ American coach Al Miller and the team’s “six or seven” American starters with the Tornado’s British coach and veteran British and European players. “This game has got a hell of future here,” Miller is quoted as saying. Bill McNutt, then a co-owner of the Tornado, is quoted, too: “It’s (soccer) becoming a monster sport in this country ... Until a year or so ago, it was an everyday reality that our league might fold. Now there’s no chance of that. We’re going right through the top.” Miller and McNutt must have agreed on more than the future of soccer and the NASL, as Miller would later become coach of the Tornado.

Eleven years after Sports Illustrated’s cover announcement, McNutt, apparently once known as the Corsicana Fruitcake King, would have to eat his words when the NASL folded. Nearly thirty-four years have passed since that optimistic Sports Illustrated article. Yet knowledgeable and experienced soccer people still remark, whether at the moment of qualifying for Italy ’90, hosting the 1994 World Cup, founding the MLS, winning the Women’s World Cup in ’99, reaching the quarterfinals of Korea/Japan ’02, bringing David Beckham to MLS in ‘07, or finding a US National Team game on the televisions in a Warwick, RI restaurant, that soccer has finally, finally arrived in the United States.

These claims are tired and misleading. Tired, because from the perspective of any dedicated soccer player, soccer has long been a central part of their life. In Dallas, home of the Cowboys and the heart of American football country, I grew up immersed in soccer. In 1973, when I was eight years old, I was crushed when the Tornado lost to Philadelphia. I watched the Tornado play every summer, and was coached, as were thousands of other Dallas kids, by Tornado players at camps and on club or school teams. I could watch “Star Soccer”, an hour-long broadcast of an English First Division match, or “Soccer Made in Germany”, an hour of the Bundesliga, on our local PBS station throughout the late 1970s. SMU regularly played top college teams from around the country. Starting in 1980, the Dallas Cup brought in youth teams from around the world, and I learned to appreciate the contrast in football styles, from Mexico, to England, to Germany, to Nigeria in person. Perhaps I was fortunate to have this environment, but I have no doubt that kids and adults who have lived and breathed soccer over the past thirty-four years did so happily regardless of the view of Sports Illustrated, or USA Today, or ESPN.

Unfortunately, when something (aside from hooligan violence, a stadium collapse, or match-fixing) happens in the soccer world that grabs American sports headline attention, it misleads people in the soccer business. Team owners, league executives, and USSF officials enjoy the rush of publicity, study the event that brought it, and attempt to recreate the moment. In the NASL, the arrival of Pele led to a crowd of other soccer greats on twilight tours of the US: Beckenbauer, Muller, Cruyff, Best, Banks. Who could have imagined them all in the same league at once? The surge in attention proved temporary, however, and the enthusiastic expansion of the NASL to 24 teams proved foolish. By the final season, the best chance for American players to start for an NASL team, other than the league-mandated “two Americans on the field” rule, was to be on the Team America roster, a version of the US National Team playing a regular league schedule. The league itself had no chance to survive by then, but dedicated soccer players would soldier on in the ASL, A-League, MISL, and USISL for the rest of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Last weekend, the MLS opened its 12th season, not quite as old as the NASL, but impressive. The competitive teams, excellent new stadiums, and full television schedule seem to promise a permanency that the NASL, unreliable tenants in oversized, concrete, football bowls, lacked. As on that 1973 Sports Illustrated cover, there are still American football lines on the turf at Texas Stadium, but no longer soccer ones. This will not be the case at Home Depot Center, or Pizza Hut Park, or any of the other soccer-only stadiums.

However, the pending appearance of David Beckham in Los Angeles signals a turn in the wrong direction, a reprise of publicity-generating schemes of the past. Why else sign perhaps the only European star with widespread recognition in the United States outside the soccer community? After the long European season, fitting a fatigued and off-form Beckham into an unfamiliar team in mid-season stride will pose a considerable challenge despite the wishes of MLS publicists .

As for the new SuperLiga, the words of MLS Commissioner Don Garber summarize its ultimate purpose: "I think North America is a real soccer continent, though overseas, they don't look at us that way," Garber said. "These events, and player signings like David Beckham, and our new stadiums, are part of the process to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the world in this great sport." Will a gringo Champion’s League win the respect of the rest of the world? With the MLS league, the Open Cup, one Mexican Primera team with a US version (Chivas), and the CONCACAF Champions Cup already in existence, not to mention the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Copa America, the SuperLiga has the potential to confuse and dilute a soccer fan base that already requires constant nurturing. MLS would do well to stick to promoting a quality professional league--teams playing creative, attacking soccer; adopting a system of relegation and promotion; reasonable player salaries; continuing to add first-class stadia; building good community relations; and developing top players capable of holding a starting spot in a European league and of leading the national team.

As Mr. Snow points out, it is laudable to find more high quality fields, more well-organized youth clubs and leagues, and a growing numbers of young US players able to meet international standards of play than existed ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. It’s amazing to think that today’s youth players have never known a World Cup without the US National Team involved.

Nonetheless, concern over the status of soccer in the American sports world, or in relationship to Europe, is a fallacy. An apparent rise in status causes the leaders of soccer organizations to believe they have achieved more than they have. It also results in the neglect of unglamorous foundation-building for flashy innovation. It does not contribute to the strength of MLS or to the success of US national teams in international competition. Dominating CONCACAF opponents, continuing the string of World Cup qualifying success, keeping MLS stadiums full year after year, sending more MLS players on to thriving European careers, avoiding any more first round exits and advancing beyond the quarterfinals at the World Cup--those achievements are signs of soccer status and will earn respect. Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and ESPN will cover those stories because they are worth covering, not because a marketing director or publicity whiz generated a gripping press release on a bland sports news day. And American soccer players, whether they remember Kyle Rote, Jr. or not, will take even greater pleasure and pride in the sport that they already know is the best. When the first US captain, whether it is Landon Donovan in 2010 or some current Under-10 player in the future, hoists the World Cup trophy, then I will join the voices praising the rise of soccer in the United States. Perhaps by then, we can just call it football, too, like everyone else in the world.