US Soccer and the Casual Fan

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I shouldn’t be this mad.
This mad is reserved for your team getting swept in the Stanley Cup Finals when they’re clear favorites. It’s reserved for Ronde f***ing Barber and for David goddamn Freese, for Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicious, for puking in the Super Bowl. This is the hurt of sports. The feeling where something you’ve invested in comes back and gives you a good old fashioned stomach punch. I love sports. But sometimes, they suck.
Sports are the ultimate uniter. Throngs of people who don’t know each other, don’t care about each other, don’t like soccer and are casual sports fans all come together every four years for the World Cup. It’s a great thing- a vast majority of the people i talk to who don’t give a damn about the world’s game all suddenly become interested when national pride is at stake. The World Cup, much like the Olympics, make united fans out of us all- because we have a common goal, and a common enemy.
I usually shun the jingoistic. Shaming people due to what “the founding fathers would have done” or attempting to trick people into liking something because your commercial has the troops in it (I’m looking at you, Bank of America) rubs me the wrong way. It is self serving, shameless and cold hearted at its root; you can’t make me enjoy your idea, show or product simply because it’s a good idea, show or product. No, that would be too simple. So you try to rouse my interest in ‘MURRRCA to shill your goods? To me, that’s backwards and deceitful. But it works for sports, for reasons I will explain shortly. And it raises interest in a sport that, by all means, should already be popular in this country. So in this regard, I don’t mind it.
Ask any baby boomer what they think about hockey. Unless you live in the northeast, you’ll usually hear some nonsense about how it’s a Canadian sport that nobody cares about, with goons beating each other up and how “WAAAH I CAN’T SEE THE PUCK ON TV.” But ask that same person about the Miracle on Ice? You’ll be regaled with tales about beating those dirty commies and how the USA is just the epitome of heart and greatness. The sport gave them a reason to get together and become one, putting aside petty differences like politics and regions.
That’s what this World Cup has done, to a lesser extent. You get the fan who only watches every four years, who decides that this sport is kind of lame but they can get behind their country, and thinks that suddenly, they’ve become experts because they’ve watched for two weeks.
Therein lies the problem, at least for me.
For the better part of the last decade, I’ve watched nearly every qualifying and friendly match the United States has played. I’ve taken an interest in the better European leagues (PL, La Liga, Bundesliga), as well as MLS, and watched most of the participants of the 2014 World Cup at the club level. This is not to feel superior; obviously, watching more soccer does not make me a better overall person than the average American sitting next to me. It does, however, give me a better perspective on the sport.
Do you know how many times random people have told me that Michael Bradley sucks? That he should be benched? It’s astounding. I’ve said the same thing to every person who has brought it up: that while he had a poor World Cup, he was the United States best player in qualifying. He played and did well enough in Serie A at Roma and in international matches to earn that spot on the team. The only way that the USMNT was going to advance in the tournament was if Bradley found his form, and he wasn’t going to find it on the bench. It became infuriating. You don’t bench your quarterback when he throws a pick, especially when he’s been great the rest of the season. And most of the idiots trashing Bradley HADN’T WATCHED any of the qualifying. There were stooges on sports talk radio who spend their days killing LeBron and Peyton Manning trying to tell the public Bradley was god awful and should be benched after watching him play three times. Three times!
Oh, and who was instrumental in the build up to Julian Green’s goal vs. Belgium? Michael Bradley.
The Bradley issue aside, the USA was bossed around by Belgium for most of the match. Kevin de Bruyne, who Jose Mourinho unceremoniously shipped out of the Chelsea lineup, was a monster. Vincent Kompany was his usual rock solid self, and Fellani and Mirallas worked hard and kept the USA running the whole match.
But DeAndre Yedlin did a good job with the best outfield player on the pitch, Eden Hazard. And Tim howard was world class. The USA got pushed around a little, but stood their ground for the most part. They struck fast on the counter, and had most of the chances from the 85th minute on. It was a good, solid defensive performance at least. As Tim Howard made save after save, you just had the feeling that the USMNT was just going to nick that one that would push them through, against all odds.
Then came the 93rd minute, when Chris Wondolowski missed that sitter that would have been the most famous goal in our country’s history. For the average casual fan, it hurt. Just a little.
But they weren’t there when there was a savage debate whether or not the man deserved a spot on the roster. Whether an unathletic, career- MLS poacher should get a place in the World Cup for the United States. He scores a ton for the Earthquakes, but is not cut out for international football, most said.
But, improbably, there he was.
In a deadlocked match, with the ball at his feet, in the final minute of stoppage time versus a European power in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
And he made a complete mess of it.
But there was hope, we all thought. Then De Bruyne made a stunning turn in the box and went low on the seemingly invincible Tim Howard. Shortly afterwards, Romelu Lukaku did his best Drogba impression after being relegated to the bench for the majority of the match. It all seemed over.
Miraculously, the last player picked for the team, the youngest man on the US squad. whom everyone assumed took the place of the best player in US history (Donovan) on the roster came on and scored from a beautiful threaded ball by Bradley.
For me, there was flashbacks of the US  defeating Spain in the Confederations Cup, of finally beating Mexico at the Azteca, of Landon versus Algeria, of a 9 man USA holding the eventual Cup winners Italy in ’06, of Clint Dempsey in the snow versus Costa Rica. To the casual fan, it was probably just “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!”, or “USA USA USA USA!” Fun, but not necessarily rewarding.
Then captain Clint scuffed a chance on a stupendous set piece. Suddenly, it was Brazil in the Confed Cup Final, Giovani Dos Santos in the Gold Cup Final, and Ghana and Ghana again.
When the whistle blew, it was a heartbreaker. To have the chances, to waste a superhuman effort from Howard, to trivialze the efforts of all the young men (Yedlin, Cameron and Gonzalez) and veterans (Beasley, Bradley and Dempsey) who were doing everything they could to bring down a “superior” European power was crushing.
I suppose you can only be crushed by something if you have a feeling of ownership. That’s why we all get mad when our favorite teams lose-it’s the same reason we’re pleased when they win. There is no more hollow a happiness than supporting a squad only when they’re victorious.
Sadly, the prevailing attitude of the American public is a resounding “Eh.” Lots of congratulations, lots of “good efforts,” lots of blame and finger pointing.
“That was fun. Now back to not caring about soccer. Call me back in four years.”
And this, America, is why we will never win anything as currently constructed. More people need to care between World Cups, not just during them. The European and South Americans put more time in the training, education, support, coaching and infrastructure.
Do you know what the impetus for those things is? Fan support. So try to take some time to give a damn BEFORE four years from now.
Or you can go ahead and complain next time when we don’t win again.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with you on so many points—really the vast majority of this post—but I have to point out what I feel are a few places where I disagree.

    1. Landon Donovan is not the best player in US history. He had a decent stint at Everton, but that’s the only time he’s succeeded beyond American soil. Sure, historically he’s been good for the USMNT, but best player of all time? For me, until yesterday, that title was up for grabs between Dempsey and Howard—they’ve both made names for themselves as dominant players in, arguably, the most difficult league in the world. Hell, let’s not forget that in 2012 Dempsey finished fourth in the FWA Footballer of the Year voting behind only Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes. But, 16 saves and a World Cup record later there’s a clear winner, and it’s not Landycakes. Do I respect Donovan? Absolutely. Were their times I wanted to see him on the pitch this World Cup? Hell yes. But best US player in history? That’s Tim Howard.

    2. I don’t disagree with Donovan being left off the roster. In hindsight, maybe he should have been there, but that’s only because—miraculously—we escaped our group. I sat fourth row in Natal vs Ghana, and, while we chanted, “I believe that we will win,” there were few who really believed it. Many, including Kilnnsman, were looking at this World Cup as building for the future of the sport in America. Donovan isn’t the future of the USMNT. He’s definitely the past, and maybe could have been the present, but this is a man who took a temporary retirement and who certainly won’t be around come 2018. The future of the club is Yedlin, it’s Green. Making room for these players on the 23-man roster was more important for US Soccer overall than the inclusion of Landon Donovan. And, let’s not forget that his exclusion from Brazil started people talking about USMNT even before the World Cup. Also not a bad thing.

    3. There’s nothing wrong with looking at this as a good effort. If, two months ago, you’d shown me a roster than included Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Vermaelen and asked, “Do you think the US can go 120 minutes with these guys, score a goal and only lose by one?” I—as a die hard fan—would have said, “Not a chance.” That match WAS an accomplishment, even if not a win. The whole world saw us and thought, “Well, shit, they’re getting better at this. We have to worry.”

    4. I think this run converted a lot of those casual fans, at least partially. They now know how exciting a nil-nil match can be. They’re beginning to care about the intricacies of the beautiful game. Every year the sport grows in this country, and even losing to Belgium helped boost that. The 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup isn’t looking like such a hard sell for these fans anymore, even if we’re not going to convince them that MLS is worthwhile… which, as a Union fan, I’m still struggling to believe.

    • Before I respond, I want to let you know how shocked and/or proud I am to get a response from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Thank you for giving a damn. I will give the utmost attention to each of your points, as respectfully as I can, acknowledging your obvious knowledge of the topic.
      1. Tim Howard was fantastic in MLS for the Metrostars. He played at the highest level an American ever has, the top team in a top league (Manchester United). I agree, he is far and away the best keeper we have ever produced (apologies to Keller). However, I will counter with this: ask a Spaniard who the top player from this golden generation has been. They will answer Xavi, Xabi Alsonso or Iniesta. It’s only rarely you will hear someone answer with Iker Casillas. It’s the same with the Zidane French generation, and the Ronaldo Brazillian generation. This is not to say the keeper is unimportant; it’s just that an outfield player will always be mentioned as a catalyst.
      And as far as Clint goes, believe me, it’s really tough to not list him as the greatest- he’s my favorite player of all time. He, more than anyone else, gave me pride in American soccer. Knocking in goals for lowly Fulham, in the spirit of Brian McBride, was delightful to say the least. That goal against Juventus in the Europa League is quite possibly the best club moment for any American. LINKhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPkQ6YdRCbQ I could watch that 100 times and never get tired of it.
      But on the whole, Donovan has been better for country. Yes, he’s wasted away in MLS at club level, short of a disastrous stint in the Bundesliga and a semi-successful few weeks at Everton. But no matter which way you measure it, he has been the best National Team player we’ve had. Top goal scorer with 57 and top assist giver with 58, and a crucial part of the ’02 and ’10 teams (where he scored crucial goals against Portugal and Algeria that might just be two of our most important goals ever scored), I think it’s correct to say he’s our best player. Statistically and moments-wise.
      2. It doesn’t upset me that Landon Donovan was left off the roster. I say this in almost direct defiance of what I just wrote. He’s well past his prime, and only the delusional will dispute that; what I just wrote about was in defense of his past, not his future. But as far as 2014 is concerned, you’re correct. He didn’t NEED to be on this roster.
      I’m happy Julian Green and Yedlin were included. It’s better in the long haul. The fact that he would have knocked in the chance that Wondo had is irrelevant. Anyone that implies that if he had made the team instead of Wondo is missing the point. The team was not good enough to defeat the rest of the CONMEBOL and UEFA teams.
      The point is this, and I preface it by proclaiming my love for MLS. I love our domestic league, and since I’ve moved to Massachusetts, I’ve followed and watched the Union at every opportunity. But against my MLS loyalty, I must say: Wondo is a career MLS player. Most argued he wasn’t athletic or talented enough to represent the USA at the national level. I WANTED him to do well, but when he made the team and Donovan didn’t, it make me wonder whether it was the right move. And I’m not going to blame him for everything, as that’s incredibly shortsighted; but I just don’t think he was ready for the limelight.
      3. You’re 100% correct, it was a good effort. But what made me upset was the fact that a majority of people who proclaimed that hadn’t watched a minute of soccer since 2010 and had derided the MLS at every opportunity.
      And you’re right about Belgium, for the most part. Lukaku was a beast in Ligue 1, then at West Brom and Everton and should start for Chelsea next year(if Mou has any sense). Kevin De Bruyne has been an potential superstar for years now. Vincent Kompany is arguably the top centre back in the world. Eden Hazard won Young Player of the Year in the PL after being sought after by every club in Europe. Fellaini, for all the hate he takes, was a stud at Everton and deserves a fair chance at Utd. Courtuois very well may be the best keeper in Europe. That’s a stacked Belgium squad. The USMNT effort was very commendable. I was as proud as can be.
      But when you have a chance to win at the last second, and you blow it due to nerves, it cuts deep. Obviously, Begium didn’t take their chances and should have had a lead before the end of the game, but the misses by Wondo and Dempsey on the set piece make you wonder what might have been.
      4. I hope you’re right. I heard more talk about soccer on TV and Radio than I ever have before. I just don’t want it to go away too quickly.
      It’s going to hurt that the next WC is in Russia, and won’t be on the right times for American TV. You can kiss those stupendous ratings goodbye.
      On the bright side, however, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL are hosting the Copa America in the USA in a few years, and if our luck is right, the US, Mexico and Costa Rica can put on a good show against the big time teams. check it out here http://www.concacaf.com/article/concacaf-and-conmebol-announce-agreement-to-bring-copa-america-2016-to-the-united-states
      And thanks for reading.


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