Archive for the ‘Soccer in America’ Category

Soccerizing American Sports

“Americanizing soccer” is always a topic for spirited debate, but how might other American sports benefit from being “Soccerized.” There are a number of great things about the beautiful game that could be translated to the NFL, NBA and MLB. Here are three things from soccer that could make some American leagues more enjoyable.

Sounders, big and little, take the pitch together.

How Teams Enter the Field
Recently I attended a Denver Broncos (American football) game. Just prior to kick-off, the speakers in the stadium started to blare with the latest hip-hop, the cheerleaders lined-up and a giant horse head was inflated near the south stands. As the announcer implored the fans to cheer for “your Dennnnvvvvver Bronnn-cooooos” smoke started pouring out of the inflated horse’s nose and large columns of fire shot into the sky. The players then charged out of the inflated horse head and started jumping up-and-down.  (And I didn’t even mention the five skydivers that landed moments prior.)

Quite the sight for sure, but it really did nothing in regard to the game. The fans listened to the anthem, sat down and then waited for the team to take the field again for the real game. Contrast those theatrics with the gingerly walk on the pitch by 18 players a side holding the hands of kids that typically happens in professional soccer games.  Different intention, different tone and different mindset.

American football is an inherently more violent game and perhaps players need to be hopped up to make hits, but it isn’t any less cerebral than soccer. Cultural differences and “fan experience” carry the day in America. However, can you imagine if NFL entrances were soccerized?

Picture the Super Bowl in February…Drew Brees and the Saints versus Peyton Manning and the Colts. A hush falls over the crowd as the teams are about to enter the field. Then, without fireworks, a bass line or a tumbling pass Reggie Bush trots out holding a hand of a youngster in a matching Saints jersey followed by the rest of his team. It would probably be the most talked about entrance in years.

Game Officiating
Performance aside, soccer officials take a better approach to officiating contests than most other sports. Unfortunately, in most American sports, the officials have evolved into a major part of the game. NBA referees are said to “control the game,” NFL officials throw yellow laundry at the players where an infraction occurred and MLB umpires are notorious for going chest-to-chest with players and managers.  In soccer, the official is rarely the center of attention (unless they miss an egregious double handball that results in a World Cup finals spot.)

As in any sport there are good and bad officials in soccer, but most do a good job of not becoming a part of the game. Soccer referees let players play and only ratchet up their own involvement beyond obvious rules violations if players are not competing in the spirit of the game. Often times, the first step in discipline is a discussion followed by a stern warning and then escalation to cards. In soccer, officials routinely attempt to influence the game in the right direction through gesturing to their pocket, calling players over for discussions before going the route of formal discipline and potentially altering the game.

Imagine if instead of tossing around double technical fouls, NBA officials decided to bring the sparring players over, talk to them like men and get them to shake hands, however forced. This approach wouldn’t diffuse every situation, but it will help to refocus the competition on the players and the game and not the official and their whistle.

Singing
Maybe it is just that soccer has history on its side, but as all sports have “gone corporate” in the past 15 years, soccer seems to have maintained the most passion in its fan bases. One of the outlets for the passionate soccer fan is singing. It is quite the thing to witness nearly an entire stadium of supporters singing in unison.

In America, fan led songs and cheers are few and far between outside of college fight songs and the J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets! cheer. In their place teams play Jock Jams, “De-Fense” chants are led by the PA announcer and noisemeters are placed in stadiums.

Could inspiring songs at the right moment give players of the home squad a boost? Might a player stepping to the plate in the 9th inning of a ball game in an opposing stadium be just a bit more distracted by a deafening song than the white noise of clapping hands and stopping fee? Would fans feel a certain sense of camaraderie through song much like you put your arm around the nearest stranger when Auld Lang Syne comes on New Year’s Eve? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.

Relegation
Pittsburgh Pirates. Kansas City Royal. Cleveland Browns. Detroit Lions. (gulp) New York Knicks. In all the major American sports, cheap owners, poor personnel decisions and general ineptitude has lead to a handful of perennial losers with virtually no motivation to improve due to monopolies of the major sports leagues. Relegation is perhaps the greatest gift soccer could give to other American sports, but also the most unlikely due to finances.

How else should American sports be soccereized?

Soccer, The World Cup & ESPN

This is Part I in a series of pieces resulting from TSG’s trip to ESPN headquarters for Media Day and the World Cup draw.

If one thing is clear following TSG’s visit to Bristol last Friday, it’s that ESPN is throwing a lot of resources at the World Cup. Whether ESPN is looking at the World Cup in the context of a greater soccer strategy is still up for debate.

ESPN will attempt to bring the World Cup to the world in all its glory.

Media Day started with a quartet of top ESPN executives walking through the “what” and “how” of the forthcoming South Africa ’10 coverage. Jed Drake, who oversees all remote production efforts across all ESPN-related networks, spoke of the importance of the event to ESPN.

This focus has led to Drake’s role being re-focused solely on the tournament as well as ESPN making the World Cup an “organizational priority;” the first time an event has ever received that distinction at the WWL. Oh yeah, there is also that ginormous countdown clock right in the middle of the ESPN campus.

Suffice it to say, the World Cup will be all over ESPN domestic and international networks as well as online and mobile properties. To me, the two most interesting things coming out of ESPN so far are 1) that each game will appear and be archived for 24 hours on ESPN360.com and 2) the current ESPN World Cup iPhone application is loaded with the history of prior tournaments.

From a personnel and exposure perspective, ESPN seems like they are locked-in on wall-to-wall coverage of every game, the game behind the game and the stories around the game with Drake adding that that ESPN is operating at a “far greater level of ambition” than Germany ’06.

Next to the podium was ESPN’s John Skipper who is responsible for the “creation, programming and production of ESPN content across all media platforms.” In other words, he’s kind of a “big deal,” as in #30 on BusinessWeek’s 2008 Top 100 most powerful people in sports. Of note, the Tottenham Hotspur supporter came across as both a straight-forward and likable guy in the morning session and a smaller group interview TSG was a part of later in the day.

Following some World Cup coverage specific questions from fellow media, TSG had the opportunity to query Mr. Skipper and lobbed in the #1 question from TSG readers.

TSG: “What is ESPN’s vision for soccer?”

Skipper: “We don’t have a vision.”

Now that wasn’t the end of Skipper’s answer, but it was a surprising beginning. Mr. Skipper then said that ESPN has a “goal, not a vision” with the goal to present the sport in an “appropriate and authoritative way.” ESPN’s coverage would be credible (to the knowledgeable soccer fan), but “in the American vernacular” that includes presenting the game and the stories (of players, teams and South Africa).

From Skipper’s answer and others throughout the day, it was clear that ESPN regards their involvement in soccer as producer of event coverage for viewers of all varieties with no overall designs or strategy to play a major role in growing the sport in America. This isn’t necessarily surprising when viewed from the Worldwide Leader’s perspective, but none-the-less somewhat disappointing for those who love the sport and realize the immense potential for ESPN to accelerate soccer’s rise in America.

Regardless of any master plan for soccer, ESPN’s commitment to the World Cup should provide a big boost to the world’s #1 game in the US.

Tomorrow, Part II: A World Cup For All Viewers

Trading Sundays For Saturdays

“September through January my weeks only have six days. Sundays don’t exist.”

Even Toby has been lobbying for a USMNT jersey recently.

This phrase, or some variation of it, has been uttered by yours truly more times than I can remember in the last decade. And it was true. The NFL and the New York Jets have had a profound impact on my life as Sundays have been filled with early games, late games, highlight shows and the Sunday night game. And of course you can throw in the Monday Night Football, Turkey Day games and December Saturday affairs as well. Simply, I watched a lot of (American) football.

This season, however, things have been a little different. Here are some examples:

  • Early Saturday mornings spent in front of the television with my dog have grown in importance while only two Sundays have found me in the NFL bunker for 12 hours.
  • My fantasy (American) football teams are doing pretty well…which apparently is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent proposing trades and scouring NFL news as my time spent on my teams this year is decidedly less than the past seven
  • Given the opportunity to watch Patriots-Dolphins or a blow-out La Liga match three weekends ago, I eschewed the match-up of the NYJ rivals to watch Valencia assault the Real Zaragoza goal repeatedly in a 3-1 victory. It should be noted that I was also visiting family in Alaska at the same time.
  • Last Sunday, I drove the 75 miles back to my in-laws home a little faster than I should have after attending the Broncos-Chargers game to arrive in-time for the start of MLS Cup coverage even though it was set to DVR. (FYI, my wife is die-hard Bronco fan.)

And now we come to tomorrow morning’s conundrum. Barcelona versus Real Madrid (GolTV, ESPN360.com) and the New York Jets versus the Carolina Panthers both at 11:00AM local time. In years past this would be a no-brainer, but this year I’m not so sure…and it has nothing to do with the mounting losses by the NYJ.

So, what’s happening to me? All I can think of is that…I got a fever…and the only prescription is…MORE SOCCER.

___________

On a separate but related topic, regular TSG commenter pckilgore passed along the recent ESPN.com dispatch from Jimmy Conrad in which the KC and USMNT defender offers his ideas for over-hauling and growing the popularity of soccer in the US. The article, while leaning heavily on many previously discussed strategies, is both a good read and thought-provoking.

“How can i love one woman when i’m in love with 11 men”…

Always singing when you're winning

So I’m a Liverpool fan. For most of my life things have been pretty good. In the early years, they were winning the League, the FA Cup, European cup and the Milk cup (Carling cup). I loved my team but I was too young to be completely overwhelmed by wins or losses. Sure I was disappointed when they lost games but I got over it pretty quickly.

Internationally things were different. I’m English but I grew up in Switzerland and like a lot of kids those days my footballing heart was with Brazil. Their 82 and 86 teams were amazing. They boasted world class players like Zico, Falcao, Socrates, Careca etc… and were a pleasure to watch. Their 82 team is often considered the greatest team never to win the WC. They all came back in 86, seasoned, wiser and favored to win. I was 100% on their bandwagon though now my allegiance to my country of birth was playing a greater role. My ultimate dream/nightmare was for England to meet Brazil in the final. Obviously I would root for Brazil but I was fine with an England win. England as you may or may not know were divinely eliminated in the quarters by the “hand of god” (admittedly his second goal was pure class) and Brazil were eliminated by France, a day earlier, in one of the greatest matches ever played. They say no team deserved to lose that game and the footballing spectacle was one for the ages. It came down to penalties and when it was over I was in shambles. It was up until then the hardest and saddest two days of my life.

It was the first time a non parental scolding or physical injury brought me to tears. I was so invested in the Selecao, followed them with such passion that their premature exit from the WC was something that I couldn’t understand, I couldn’t grasp that it was just a game and everything would be ok…my life as I knew it was in ruins.

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The USMNT…A Global Endeavor

In a recent post, a reader commented on the new additions to the national team player pool being “foreigners who aren’t good enough to play for their own countries” and lamented the fact guys like Edgar Castillo and Jermaine Jones could usurp priceless WC spots from “hardworking Americans” (whose first choice was to play for the US).

Jones & Castillo...settling for playing with the USMNT?

Jones and Castillo...settling for playing with the USMNT?

Putting aside the fact that Castillo was born and raised in New Mexico, the reader’s comment got me thinking about the subject. Essentially, when it comes to the national team, what is more important…

Fielding the absolute best team, even if it means “importing” players with only technical ties to America?

OR

Fielding a team that is wholly comprised of born-and-bred, flag-respecting Americans?

The issue will never be that black-and-white because there really is a continuum of “American” from born-and-raised to I-can-trace-an-acceptable-bloodline. So before you answer consider these backgrounds in the current MNT player pool which are decidedly all over the map…

Iceman would be just as comfortable juggling in a kilt

Stuart Holden – born in Scotland, moved to Houston at age 10, became a US citizen in 2006

Clint Dempsey – born and raised in Texas

Jozy Altidore – born in New Jersey, parents are Haitian

Robbie Findley – born and raised in Phoenix, dual citizenship (USA and Trinidad & Tobago), was in camp with for the T&T U-23 squad in 2006

Freddy Adu – born in Ghana, moved to the US at age 8, became a citizen in 2003

Jonathan Spector – born and raised in Illinois, secured a German passport to play in Europe

Sacha Kljestan – born and raised in California, father is an ethnic Serb from Bosnia

Tim Howard – born and raised in New Jersey, mother was born in Hungary

Benny Feilhaber – born in Brazil, of Austrian decent, moved to the US at age 6

Carlos Bocanegra – born and raised in California, of Mexican decent

Pablo Mastoeni – born in Argentina, moved to Phoenix at age 4

And what about former MNT players…

Goose

Goose in the land of watches, army knives and neutrality?

Marcelo Balboa – grew up in California, father was Argentinean (similar to Claudio Reyna)

Tab Ramos – born in Uruguay, moved to NJ at age 11 where

Jeff Agoos – born in Switzerland (to an American diplomat), grew up in Texas

Earnie Stewart – born in the Netherlands

Fielding the best team is the right choice for two reasons. First, elevating the level of play for the USMNT would be tremendous for a variety of reasons and second…

If America stands for anything it is the acceptance of and opportunity for all people. The current USMNT represents this and with its global ties really is a true reflection of America. And besides, “foreigners” aren’t given spots, they have to earn them…another hallmark of the American experience.

In addition, a second question has emerged more recently (which the aforementioned TSG reader later clarified as his main point of contention) as result of a recent FIFA rule change. Specifically, should players that fail to catch on with foreign national teams get a second chance to play for the USMNT if they have that opportunity via American ties?

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Stood Up By The Sports Guy

Update From Mark: The title and notion that we were “stood up” was written firmly tongue-in-cheek. Seems like it didn’t come across that way to some readers based on the comments. However, we certainly appreciate the impassioned discourse. For 45 days a note sat in the sidebar about the Campaign. This post was to wrap it up, say we failed and thank people for making the effort.

———————————————————————–

Assuming you can be stood up by someone who never actually said “yes,” the USMNT faithful were stood up by faux USMNT fan Bill Simmons of ESPN.com last week when the Yanks took on Costa Rica at an emotional RFK stadium. And thus we came to the unsuccessful conclusion of the Bill Simmons Campaign.

Based on the emails we received and various message boards around virtual America, I know everyone put forth a great effort to reach out to Simmons via email and twitter imploring him to attend the final World Cup qualifier. (Matthew and I explored other avenues to make direct contact, but were ultimately unsuccessful as well.)

To all who did what they could, THANK YOU.

To be honest, I knew the campaign was in some trouble when Simmons opened a recent “Mailbag” with an ode to October as the best month for sports and didn’t even make a casual reference to World Cup qualification matches.

The Sports Guy was not in the stands (as far as we know and with his second half tweets as evidence) for the dramatic draw, but it sounds like he wishes he was there. (Don’t we all!)

Here’s an excerpt from his Friday NFL column:

RFK STADIUM (-3) over Any Other Soccer Venue
Did you see Wednesday’s incredible USA-Costa Rica game? Phenomenal crowd, upper decks hanging over the field, entire sections swaying, tons of history … the whole thing was Estadio Azteca-esque, only without the fluid-throwing. I was lucky enough to stand on that field once with the Hogs for a 2002 column. It’s an incredible place. Every seat feels like it’s right on top of you. So can’t we just make it official? Every big American soccer game should be played in RFK. We need the home-field advantage. Done and done.

Most interesting to me was that Simmons made no mention of Charlie Davies or The Salute in his note; especially considering the human side of sport and fan experience is what this guy’s career was been built on.

Let me let the statement resonate with you.

A guy who makes his living speaking from the fan perspective didn’t even note the tribute to  Charlie D, the player who scored the only goal that the “Sports Guy” ever saw in person.

(I’ll leave the debate about RFK as the national stadium to you guys and Jason Davis over at Match Fit who recently addressed the subject. Is Simmons qualified to offer an opinion on a national stadium for the USMNT…umm, no.)

In reality, the inclusion of the above snippet in his weekly NFL column seemed like Bill Simmons was tossing a bone to the soccer fans among his faithful readers. Kind of like a “See guys, I still follow soccer.”

For all the reasons we stated in the original piece kicking off the Campaign it was worth giving it a try as there is no denying the coverage by Simmons would have been a boon to Soccer in America. However, at the end of the day, soccer was simply a convenient August distraction and fodder for Simmons’ columns when needed.

Hey Bill, can we at least get a response the next time your soccer crush kicks in?

No caption needed

Honestly, "Sports Guy," how could you miss this? (Awesome photo by Matt Mathai.)

Martin Tyler + ESPN + World Cup + USMNT = ???

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As has been reported around the online soccer world, ESPN has secured the services of announcer Martin Tyler (of EPL and of EA Sports FIFA video game series fame) to call the World Cup for the Worldwide Leader. (No official word as to whether he will be joined by Andy Gray.)

Tyler has called every Word Cup since 1974.

Tyler has called every Word Cup since 1974.

Two things about the move that are somewhat interesting when considered in tandem…

  1. Tyler won’t be changing his style to be more “American,” which isn’t that surprising.  Said Tyler, “I think I’ve been acquired for what I am and not what I might become … I think maybe those who have made the decision about me would like to get, if you like, a more global feel to what is a global game.”
  2. ESPN is considering having Tyler assigned to all USMNT games.

The hiring is a boon to purists and die-hards, but it will be interesting to see how it will play to those not well-versed in soccer (or to Tyler, “football”) who will tune into games out of some combination of global spectacle, curiosity and patriotism, among other things. Regardless of what a “Tyler call” adds to the game for those who follow soccer, it will make the game less accessible to those who don’t.

From a “soccer in America” perspective, it would be a risk for ESPN to assign Tyler to all USMNT games as an English voice and “global feel” could be a turn-off to the general American public and could ultimately dampen the boost that soccer gets in America every four years via the World Cup. (This is by no means a certainty, but not out of the realm of possibility either.)

On the other hand, as ESPN has staked its claim to English soccer (over American soccer) they may want to use the World Cup to breed more familiarity with an English / European call of the game in an attempt to enhance the profile and likelihood of success for the WWL’s future broadcasts. For as ESPN has shown, soccer coverage, or lack thereof, is purely a business decision.

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