Thursday, May 27, 2010

The World Cup, we’re still awaiting the soccer revolution in US; Answering a few comments

They announced the United States World Cup soccer team yesterday. This was a big deal on ESPN, which has decided to try to convince Americans to see in soccer what the rest of the world sees and in The New York Times and The Washington Post, each of which carried two major stories on the naming of the 23-man roster. One thing I couldn't help but notice in looking at the roster: Only FOUR of the 23 players on the U.S. roster are currently playing professionally in this country on teams that compete in The Major Soccer League. That's just not enough.

I have said this before and I will say this again: I am not one of those people who rip soccer just because there are times when it seems that no one ever scores. In fact, I watched a chunk of the U.S.'s game--or 'friendly,' as these exhibitions are called--against the Czech Republic and there were plenty of goals to watch in the Americans' 4-2 loss. On the other hand I am not someone who is going to sit here and claim there is nothing like the artistry of a 0-0 tie that has 14 corner kicks or that those who don't see the beauty in the game simply don't understand the game.

I will certainly watch The World Cup. Whether I will watch very many entire games is another question although the U.S. opener against England on June 12th is one I'm curious about on several levels: England should be one of the better teams in the tournament so we'll probably find out a lot about the U.S. in that first game. Beyond that, I've probably watched more World Cup soccer FROM England than anyplace else, dating back to the long-ago days when I spent a lot of time there every summer covering Wimbledon and The British Open.

In fact, I was in a London pub with my friend Tom Ross--who in spite of being an agent is a good guy--for Maradona's infamous Hand of God goal. The reaction to the goal and to its being allowed and to Argentina winning the game is one of my most vivid sports memories. If you were in that pub that night you would never again call The World Cup boring.

As I've mentioned here before soccer was my first beat at The Washington Post when I started there as a summer intern 100 years ago (okay, 1977). In fact it was soccer that allowed me to meet Bob Woodward for the first time. I was covering The Washington Diplomats, then Washington's team in The North American Soccer League. I had taken over the beat from Donald Huff, who was going on vacation and the first two games I covered the Dips--as they were called--were shut out. That made three straight games without a goal.

As I was leaving RFK Stadium that night I said to Terry Hanson, then the Dips PR director, "geez, I wonder if Dennis (Viollet who was then the coach) might be in trouble." Hanson, who has now been my friend for more than 30 years, looked at me and said, "If I were covering the team I'd make some phone calls tomorrow."

Eager young intern, I did just that. No one would take my calls, a pretty good clue something was up since normally soccer people would come to your house to get publicity. Finally, I got Steve Danzansky, the team president on the phone at about 9 o'clock at night. Even though I didn't know Danzansky well I had found him to be extremely outgoing and friendly. When he picked up the phone that night the first thing he said was, "you've got a lot of nerve calling my house at this hour."

Now I KNEW something was up. I apologized for the intrusion and said I wondered if Viollet might be in any kind of trouble given the team's goal drought. "Well," Danzansky said, "he isn't exactly a candidate for coach of the year right now is he?"

Whoops. By the time I hung up the phone with Danzansky I knew Viollet was done. Soon afterwards I reached him on the phone and he told me there was a press conference the next morning and that assistant coach Alan Spavin would be there--without him. I had enough to write.

George Solomon, the sports editor, stripped the story across the top of the sports page because it was late June and nothing else was going on. Washington had no baseball team and the Redskins hadn't opened training camp yet. The next morning I was sitting at my desk--which, as luck would have it, was only a few yards away from Woodward's desk. Being in The Post's newsroom was a thrill for me at that point in my life; being a few yards from Bob Woodward made me feel slightly faint. This was not long after "All The President's Men," had come out in theaters. I had read the book and had gone to see the movie three times--in one day.

So, when Woodward approached me with a smile on his face, I wondered if he had me confused with someone else.

"Hi John," he said. "I'm Bob Woodward. (no kidding). Great job this morning on the soccer coach."

If I had been able to find my voice to say something other than, "t-t-t-t-thank you, it's g-g-g-g-great to meet you," I might have said, "yeah thanks. Nice job on Watergate."

Soccer coach, Watergate--about the same thing, right?

Anyway, covering soccer was great for me. The players were always cooperative and Steve Danzansky apologized for barking at me on the phone and we became good friends. I've always had a warm spot for the sport and whenever Steve Goff and I cover a basketball game together I ask him about D.C. United and about the MLS.

Here's the bottom line though: You can't FORCE people to like soccer just by telling them they should like it. You can't sit back and hope the U.S. gets the World Cup again in 2018 or 2022. And you can't have your best players playing overseas all the time. Imagine if the best college basketball players all played in Europe. What would that do for the NBA--and basketball is OUR sport, it isn't a game in which we are learning as we go.

So if people like my friend George Vecsey, who has written so enthusiastically on soccer in The New York Times for so many years, really want to see the game grow here--and I don't mean grow to NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball levels--they should focus on telling the people who run MLS that they MUST invest in keeping American stars at home. Freddy Adu bombed in Washington and Landon Donovan DOES play in L.A. There needs to be more effort to keep the top Americans home--PAY them to stay home.

Build the MLS rather than telling us we must watch the MLS. The same with The World Cup. The niche fans will want to watch England and Italy and The Ivory Coast. The mainstream fan wants to see the Americans compete. And they want to see the best Americans playing regularly on American soil in an American-based league.

So, let's look forward to the World Cup and let's see how this U.S. team does. But as we do so remember this: back in the days when I covered the Dips and the NASL the league's motto was this: "Soccer, the sport of the 80s." That was thirty years ago. We're still waiting for the revolution to take place.


Answers to a couple of questions from recent days: My name is pronounced Feinsteen--since my family was from the Ukraine it is not pronounced Feinstine, which is usually the way it is pronounced for those with a Germanic background...I have NO intention of attempting the Bay Swim, I will leave that to my much braver swimming friends. I get nervous DRIVING the 4.4 miles across that bridge much less swimming under it...And to the poster from yesterday who referred to the "shoddy reporting," of the Detroit Free Press, two points: That reporting led to the Michigan investigation which MICHIGAN now says uncovered rules violations and in the blog yesterday most of my references were to the Michigan report--not to the Free Press...


John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

To listen to 'The Bob and Tom Show' interview about 'Moment of Glory', please click the play button below:


Mr. X said...

I think the powers that be in US Soccer have decided to grow interest by advancing farther in the World Cup. That means our best players need to play against the best players from other countries, and that means going to Europe, not staying in the MLS.

Jeremy said...

How do you pronounce your first name?

Gunnar said...

Steve Goff does a great job on Soccer.

In Seattle, we average 36,000 fans per MLS game, roughly double the MLS average. Last night, the team scored their first goal in over 300home game minutes. The sport cannot grow without goals, 3-1/2 games without a score is brutal.

The MLS does need to grow their payroll, trim or relocate some unhealthy franchises (Dallas, etc). They really need to improve the quality of the referees, a lot of the skill and skill players are taken out of the game by thug defenders...think 1990's NY Knicks.

The league also needs to look at their point system, which would be against worldwide FIFA standards, but they should bump up the points awarded for a win vs the number of points awarded for a tie. Maybe also award points for goals. A 2-2 tie is OK, nil-nil is not.

I don't understand the element of soccer fans that feel the need to convince others how great the game is. As a lifelong soccer guy, if fans like the sport that is great, but I don't try to convert fans. Personally, I would much rather watch college football, college basketball, golf, too.

What a thrill to receive a sportspage headline and praise from Bob Woodward as an intern, great story.

James said...

People complain soccer is boring (and of course sometimes it is) but I find it really fan-friendly because it's only a two-hour investment. No tv timeouts, no instant replay, no stoppage in time. And, if it's not the knock-out stage of a tournament, there's not even overtime! Two hours and you're done.

Anonymous said...

I do like watching international soccer, but much of it has to do with the passion of the fans more than the 'sport'. Maybe the Sounders would be great to watch, but usually that's not who is on from the MLS.

Anonymous said...

Keeping American players in America would hinder their growth and development, and stunt the growth of the national team. I mean, you wouldn't suggest Dirk Nowitzki should have stayed in Germany to play basketball to help grow the sport in Germany. Hasn't he done more for the sport in that country by coming to America to play at the highest level?

US Soccer is decades behind the big countries in Europe. Before you can expect the best Americans to stay, the league needs to get better. The overall quality of MLS is approximately between the 2nd and 3rd divisions of England (somewhere between AA and AAA quality in baseball terms).

The growth in soccer in this country will not come through MLS. It will come when people in America begin to appreciate and follow foreign leagues more (England, Spain, Italy) and watch and appreciate the game at its best. Just like in other countries, basketball grew their from people watching the NBA first, then their own leagues.
If people gain a greater appreciation for the sport that way, eventually things will start to trickle up, and maybe in 20 years MLS will be a higher caliber league where the best American players stay home. But the best staying home now would be devastating to development.

When France won the World Cup in 1998, almost none (it might have actually been none; I'd have to look it up) of their players played in France. This was because the French league wasn't nearly as good as England, Spain, Italy, Germany, or even Holland or Turkey. Their players became better by playing in the best leagues, against the best competition.

Steve Rankin said...

For most of the soccer people I've known over the last 35 years (me included), it's never been about having the game recognized in this country on par with the other established major sports. It's been about getting it to a point where you can follow it and be as big a fan as you want to be. Because there was never any easy way to follow what was going in the rest of the world, it was difficult to be a fan even if you were so inclined.

Now, with all the major professional soccer leagues available on ESPN, FOX Soccer Channel, GOLTV, and others, you can become as involved and absorbed as you want to be. I watch Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and Bundesliga games religiously, and am always pleased to follow the progress of the top American players who are playing there.

Sure, I'd prefer to have a top-notch league here in the US and the ability to see games live. But I can see great soccer nearly every week of the year and can become immersed in the sport even if it's not on home soil. Technology has allowed us to follow the game intimately if we choose to do so. And there is simply no substitute for playing in the top leagues worldwide if our players are ever to reach the truly elite level necessary to win a World Cup.

I think I speak for many, many soccer fans in suggesting that's all we've ever really wanted. Most of us couldn't care less if anyone else in this country catches on. We've been belittled for years as evangelists intent on converting the entire population to fans of "the beautiful game." The reality is many of us just want to be able to follow the sport in the privacy of our own homes.

Now, after all these years, we can. Whether others choose to do so is completely irrelevant to me.

ScottInMD said...

One of the big hurdles that American soccer faces is that it's difficult to put on TV. The very few, very short stoppages in play don't allow for the standard commercial format. Without that, it's hard to draw advertising revenue for what remain, sadly, a fringe sport.

Frank said...

Socer v an American sport like baseball.

I think baseball is an exciting and interesting sport. It's been said that in baseball, the most important action takes place between the pitches. That's when all the thinking is done...what pitch with the pitcher toss...what's the batter looking for...where to position the shortstop...etc. Basefall fans like me really love that aspect of the game (see Boswell's column of 5/27 about the two-strike pitch). And my European friends who did not grow up here don't understand or appreciate that.

Same with soccer in America. We didn't grow up to appreciate the game, and the game can be hard to understand. I really love it and appreciate the athleticism and skills of all the players.

Another international sport that's not really that popular here is rugby. I have a deal with an Irish friend of mine. I go to rugby matches with him to learn that game, and he goes to Nationals games with me to learn baseball. We ahve a great time and we both learn a lot.

Chuck B '92 said...

MLS languishes in America not because its stars don't choose to play here. MLS' business plan involves the league (in effect) owning the players, and when the teams in the EPL and Bundesliga come along and dangle some interest, MLS gets a cut of the profits. If MLS players played here for the salaries they could get overseas, MLS would fold tomorrow. MLS is based on keeping player wages artificially low.

Having said that... I like MLS soccer. As dodgy as the business plan is, I like the product they put on the field for the most part. They're expanding intelligently, in Seattle (36,000 fans a game is something to drool over), Philly and Portland.

Their biggest issue is the placement of their season. If they kicked off their first game in mid-February the week after the Super Bowl and hosted the MLS cup championship the last week on NFL preseason, as a league it would be on par with the NHL in people's minds and you wouldn't need to convince anybody anything about the merits of soccer.