Tuesday, November 22, 2005
As a group, we soccer fans here in the States tend to spend a lot of time being negative about the state of our beloved game because, well... MLS isn't the NFL and US Soccer isn't the scourge of the world stage that USA Basketball is (err, was). Since it's getting to be that time of year, I thought I would spend a little time reminding everyone of all the things that we, as soccer fans, should be thankful for as we sit down to eat our turkey and concoct our own fantasies about what might happen in Germany next summer.
Five Straight World Cups – I know that, as a nation, our sporting expectations are huge, but lets take a moment to appreciate the fact that not only have we qualified for our fifth straight World Cup, but also that we've gotten to a place where it didn’t even go down to the wire.
Let's remember that Holland couldn’t qualify for Japorea '02 and Spain had to go to a playoff to get to Germany this time around. For those who don’t believe we’re as good as our FIFA ranking, think about the fact that Denmark (ranked 14th), Uruguay (17th), Greece (18th), Ireland (21st), Cameroon (T23rd), and Nigeria (T23rd) will all be watching the Cup from the stands or on TV.
CONCACAF – It isn't often that anyone thinks to be thankful for an organizing body, but let's face it: the fact that CONCACAF is weak gives us a lot of leeway to do things that help us grow. We are regularly able to try new lineups and experiment with fringe players in competitive situations because we've already clinched a division or a group.
Most countries who aspire to the group stages of the World Cup are forced to play their best players in nearly every qualifying match. The Eddie Gavens and Chad Marshalls of the world will be much better off down the road for having some experience where the opponent was fighting for something.
MLS – Sure, it isn't the EPL, it isn't even the Eredivisie, but after some hiccups there seem to be some signs of progress. There's news out of Spain that Barcelona are seriously considering investing in an MLS franchise at some point in the future. Expansion to 14 teams grows nearer. Three soccer-specific stadiums are already up and running with the promise of more to come in the relatively near future. The reserve league completed its first season giving youngsters on MLS rosters a chance to develop outside of the, ahem, bright lights of the first team.
Just as an interesting comparison contemplate the following attendance numbers…5,113, 8,000, 6,000, 25,000, and 44,000. MLS Playoff attendance figures you might ask? Nope, attendance figures for this past Sunday's Serie A matches from Italy. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that MLS can't draw enough fans to be a "real soccer league".
Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Germany, France, Italy, and England – As the guys at PTI would say: "That's it, that's the list." And by 'the list', I mean the teams that we'd have to have a "Miracle on Ice" sort of game to beat next summer.
I'm not saying that we'll definitely beat everyone else, but I can't think of anyone else that I'd be depressed to see before the semifinals. That list is a lot shorter than it was after we washed out of France '98 a mere eight years ago.
Fox Soccer Channel, GolTV, espn2, and Setanta – There was a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when you just couldn’t see that much soccer on TV. At the risk of sounding like an old man, I remember when the grainy Soccer Made in Germany on PBS was about the only option available to a kid who wanted to see the game played at the highest level.
This past Saturday alone, I had the option of watching Arsenal v. Wigan; Borussia Dortmund v. Hertha Berlin; Charlton v. Manchester United; West Bromwich Albion v. Everton; Real Madrid v. Barcalona; and Juventis v. Roma between 7:30 AM and 6:00 PM – and most of them were live.
I'm not sure how thankful my girlfriend is for the proliferation of footy on TV, but the coverage available to us isn't THAT different from what's available in Europe. I'll be even more thankful if one or more of these outlets goes HD in the new year...
Training Facilities and Fanaticism – Having just watched El Classico, the point was underlined – Brazil is on another level when it comes to skill. We're not going to compete with those guys on skill, so thank goodness that isn't the only way to win a match.
Our country's athletic infrastructure helps us field a team that can at least hope to keep up by running hard and scrapping. It may not be the answer that anyone wants to hear, but stranger things have happened than an overlooked opponent with great conditioning, excellent organization, and a little luck beat heavily favored competition in a major competition. Euro2004 anyone?
This is probably of little comfort to those of you contemplating running even more wind-sprints and sub-six minute miles in preparation for your upcoming spring seasons, but be thankful that this is part of our athletic culture – it means that we’ll be in almost every match until our collective skill level improves.
Landon Donovan – Yup, he's taken a lot of crap from those of us in the media about his Leverkusen wash-out, but when he's on his game he is capable of showcasing everything we hope US Soccer can become.
At his best, he combines speed, guile, creativity and at least the occasional killer instinct around the net. And while it might be a bit self-serving and I might not agree, it is nice to hear that there is someone who believes that MLS offers at least some sort of legitimate alternative to going to Europe when that option is clearly available.
If nothing else, I can be thankful that Landon’s controversial career gives pundits like myself a lot to write about.
Youth – Think about the fact that the following guys are all 23 years old or younger and presumably will get getting better and stronger for the four more years before World Cup 2010: DaMarcus Beasley (23), Ricardo Clark (22), Bobby Convey (22), Clint Dempsey (22), Landon Donovan (23), Eddie Gaven (19), Eddie Johnson (21), Justin Mapp (21), Chad Marshall (21), Oguchi Onweyu (23), Santino Quaranta (21), Jonathan Spector (19), and Zak Whitbread (21). All but Whitbread are already in the frame for the National Team.
Throw in precocious Under-20's like Freddie Adu (16), Benny Feilhaber (20), Lee Nguyen (20), and Marvell Wynne (19) and the future looks pretty bright before we start talking about the Under-17's who showed promise in Peru earlier this year.
I'm not sure if there's a Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, or Wayne Rooney in the group, but we're getting closer and closer with each passing year. It isn't long until a few spectacular athletes who would have been undersized Division I point guards with no NBA future start thinking that soccer might offer a more realistic path to fame and fortune.
Nike – Just think: in 1979 sneakers were a $30 or $40 purchase. NBA regular season games weren't shown nationally and even the Finals were occasionally shown on tape delay due to lack of interest. Sure, it was a uniquely American game and the cause was moved forward by the incredible talents of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (and eventually Michael Jordan), but it was Nike that made basketball integral to popular culture.
They aren't focused on soccer now like they were focused on basketball then, but they're still the guys you want on your side if you're trying to break in to the national consciousness. The current ad campaign is a great start and you have to assume that it will expand as the World Cup draws closer.
There may not be a World Cup in our trophy case yet but there is clearly a great deal to be thankful for as the momentum and excitement start to build for Germany. Before I let you get back to your feasting and your families, I'd also like to add a couple items of my own to the above list. I'd like to thank Jeremy Spitzberg who agreed to commit some time to writing a soccer blog with me in 2004. I'd like to thank Trevor Kramer of Football365 for publishing a couple articles written by someone who'd never been published anywhere anyone had heard of (that'd be me). I'd like to thank the founders of this fine web site for letting me join the YA team and write about something I love. Finally, I'd like to thank our readers who have not only made our site a relevant part of the US Soccer scene, but who regularly take the time to write lengthy comments and opinions on the topics we cover as well as making sure we're up to date on Americans who may have opportunities abroad be they mainstream or obscure players.
If you have some additions to the list, let me know and I'll try to include it in the next mailbag on or (hopefully) before Christmas. Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!