“Summer of Soccer” In the Eye of the Beholder

Meaningful or Meaningless?

Meaningful or Meaningless?

With the game at Azteca looming we are nearing the end of a great stretch of soccer in the US. If you search around the web you’ll find all sorts of retrospectives about the Confed Cup, the Gold Cup, the World Soccer Challenge, World Cup qualifying, international club friendlies and even the US Open and CONCACAF Champions League, so I won’t rehash all that. But I would like to touch on one thing I have learned watching, reading and writing about soccer this summer: sometimes perception counts more than performance (and that is unfortunate).

We are in a period in America where every result is judged not just on the quality of performance, but on how it is perceived by diehards, sportscasters/journalists, the casual fan and the disinterested American. While I don’t like it, I think it is just the reality we must live in during the current phase of Soccer in America.

Here are two examples.

The perception of the Confed Cup for most of the list of four above (diehard to disinterested) was that it was a rousing success that included possibly the greatest upset in modern US Soccer history and the “emergence” of a Landon Donovan. Based on performance, I would submit, it clearly showed that the US is an inconsistent squad that can only beat a world power through will and determination coupled with the best brand of soccer they can muster. Don’t get me wrong, I was jumping up and down with a bunch of other crazies at Shakespeare’s Pub in San Diego as time expired versus Spain. I loved that win. But was it really anything more than Appalachian St. taking down Michigan?  A great upset that really didn’t mean all that much except for some stunned fans of the “Goliath?”

The reverse happened with the Gold Cup. The non-diehards (and even some of the diehards) viewed the 5-0 defeat as an embarrassment of epic proportions, took US Soccer to the mat for bringing the “C” team and discounted everything before the final 45-minutes. Whereas the performance for the level of talent on the field leading up to the 2nd half of the final was decidedly strong (although not spectacular) and the tournament shed some light on the 2nd and 3rd tiers of the US Player pool.

So now we reach the metaphorical end of the Summer of Soccer ’09 with the match versus Mexico next week representing the cherry on the sundae. (Incidentally, Mexico will be without Rafa Marquez due to injury.) From the performance viewpoint, a US victory would go a long way towards showing some consistency and growth on the world stage and all but secure a World Cup berth (while putting Mexico’s bid on life support). A draw could be an admirable showing depending on how the Yanks played. And a loss by more than a goal would be the proverbial “two steps back” for the US Soccer program after the small step forward at the Confed Cup.

As for perception? Surprisingly, the 2nd half collapse at Giants Stadium a few weeks ago could be a good thing for US Soccer as expectations are now tempered for the August 12 showdown. But should they be? The US “A” team will be playing its first game since the Confed Cup and the resulting hype. So, why should expectations be any different?

Regardless, I think perception meets reality next Wednesday for US Soccer. A loss would be and be perceived as a mis-step. A win would be a giant step forward performance-wise while wiping some of the perceived stink off the Gold Cup final. And a draw would fall somewhere in the middle with the performance being graded on collection of great plays and missed opportunities along with perceptions probably falling equally across the spectrum.

One other thing I learned this summer…Americans dig soccer and that’s just reality.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2009/08/06 at 9:45 AM

    Great post — quality analysis — I knew we were related.

    I would merely add this from someone who has worked 10 years in media.

    While inconsistency and hype have been as volatile in the stock market, controversy serves to create relevance.

    While I could care less about a Beckham – Donovan feud, (By the way, you’re telling me a former Galacticos and United player who is just heading down the hill of his prime and has the best weapon in the MLS, can’t dominate games? Please Beckham, get your head in the game), Jimmy Conrad’s joking comments on Javier Aguirre, and even more so about ESPN’s ridiculous assessment of the failure of the Gold Cup final, at least people are talking about it.

    Air time equals promotion and hopefully equals more fans. Who cares how the fans get there. Media consumption is a zero sum game and that more people are paying attention to soccer in the U.S. through whatever feuds misperceptions, I’m okay with that.

    Looking forward to the ratings for U.S. – Mex game.

    Excellent post.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Matthew N on 2009/08/06 at 11:09 AM

    The thing US soccer really needs is quite simple: the MLS and international footy needs to be treated like a real sport on Sportscenter and the like. The only time soccer even makes it on Sportscenter is during the top plays or during the events you mention, which most Americans don’t even understand. I would guess that only a handful of fans can even tell you what the Confed Cup is, they just know the US lost in the final. That victory was definitely overblown and it made the US performance look a lot less mediocre. On the other hand, the average fan knows nothing about how insignificant regional championships like the Gold Cup are. People see the US losing and they cast aside any interest in soccer because of halfhearted efforts like the US-Mexico game. Most people probably don’t even know what Fox Soccer Channel is, and ESPN does next to nothing to promote the few games it does show. The media makes or breaks sports like soccer/tennis/golf/etc. The NFL, NBA, and MLB can promote themselves, but all the other sports need some help. We need ESPN to pick soccer as the next big thing, and if they do, it will happen. At this point, most people view soccer in a far-too-narrow way. They don’t see it as the “beautiful game,” but rather a game where there are few goals and a lot of ties. Education is the key, and we need the major sports outlets to do their parts.

    Reply

  3. I agree with Matthew N about the impact that ESPN can have. As discussed in a previous entry, the MLS just does not draw viewers for ESPN and after giving it a couple years with a standard time slot they had to pull the plug.

    I like what ESPN is doing right now – promoting and televising good soccer. Don’t let the casual US sports consumer stumble across the Columbus Crew vs. Real Salt Lake on astroturf. Show them Barca, Chelsea, AC or Inter play in packed US stadiums. One, the product will be better and more intriguing. Two, the average viewer will wonder what in the world 70,000 people are doing watching the game live…it’s the people in the bar analogy. If you walk by a bar and there are people inside, more people are inclined to go in. When you walk by a bar with a few drunks and a lot of open seats, chances are you move on…I digress.

    Back to ESPN – check out the homepage of ESPN.com right now – featured placement linking to this piece: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=usworldcup > I have not read it yet but it is obvious from a quick look that they actually took some time to pull together some unique design and a good story.

    ESPN has next Summer’s world cup rights so it obviously behooves them to get the story out there. Hopefully there is more of this type of coverage.

    As it relates to getting more coverage, I would like to see the likes of ESPN televise one European match per weekend. Pick a great match, buy the US rights and show it live. Potentially work with the leagues to make sure it is a night match in Spain, UK, Italy so it starts at semi-normal time in the US. The problem here is that the programming would likely compete with college football in the fall and hoops in the winter or the run up to an NFL game which is a non-starter. I don’t know what type of ratings Purdue vs. Michigan State draws in the early Saturday slot for ESPN, but I wouldn’t mind seeing an Arsenal ManU or Barca Real game showcased at the same time…For me, great soccer…a wonderful product with fans, and sublime play, is the way to the hearts of Americans…and for the foreseeable future, the MLS will not be providing that.

    Reply

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