USA must climb hurdles to maintain relevancy in mainstream America
JUL 02, 2014 8:30p ET
The bunting came down across America on Tuesday morning. The World Cup is over for the United States men's national team, and despite the fact that there is a lot of soccer left yet to play in Brazil, you get the feeling that the World Cup might be over for America as well.
That's not a shock. Americans love parties, and June is a wonderful month in which to have them. Americans are also fickle about their sports. When the Chicago Blackhawks are doing well in my hometown, everyone's a fan. When the Chicago White Sox are losing, good luck finding a black and white shirt outside of Bridgeport. That's just how it is. We watch games to be entertained, and if a team is hot, we're all fans while it lasts.
Yet every four years, this same thing seems to happen with the sport of soccer, and it's a topic worth examining. The same tropes get trotted out; "The sport of the future," the "world's game," yadda yadda. It's predictable, and it's vapid. And then the Americans go to the World Cup, create a little swell, and then they -- and the sport -- go back to the same corner as before.
Like it or not, soccer is still an "emerging" sport in America, which is a charitable way of saying "unpopular." It's an unusual beast, the only major sport mainstream American sportswriters can not only ignore, but also eat up newspaper inches by bashing it.
Think about that for a moment. Would any big-city sportswriter ever pen a story claiming ice hockey was being "forced down his throat" as one New England columnist did about soccer? Why soccer inspires such loathing is bemusing -- and quite possibly tinged with racism as well. For being so unpopular, one thing is clear: Suddenly, a lot of people are watching it.
22 million people watched the United States play Belgium on Tuesday -- a big, eye-popping number for a weekday sporting event. Did this American team and this World Cup do enough to keep soccer on the front pages? And did it do enough to finally make casual fans start caring about professional soccer here? The answers are mixed.
Most people will probably say that the United States did pretty darn well in Brazil. They got out of a tough group that included two European powerhouses and the performed bravely against Belgium. That's charitable. In actual fact, they won one game, lost two others and got a draw -- same as they did in 2010. You can argue this group was tougher -- it was -- but if you actually look at the games at a remove, you have to acknowledge they were widely outplayed in their final two games, saved by a fabulous show from goalkeeper Tim Howard. Brave? Sure. Good? No.
You also have to note that the Americans have not shown significant growth since 2002, when they made the quarterfinals on neutral soil. They have hit a plateau of sorts, and how they get past that is the next major task that faces the United States Soccer Federation and manager Jurgen Klinsmann. He needs better players, and he needs to change a lot of the rickety substructure of the American game. And if can do that, he will get the one thing the public actually cares about: Big wins.
Let's acknowledge what Klinsmann got right. He broke up the old "club" mentality that had infected this team, and sent messages to every player that they would be judged on what they could do -- not what they had done. It was sorely needed. He also was the smiling face of the program, relentlessly positive, and incredibly available. He knew that the team and the sport needed selling, and he did it. Finally, he blooded a number of bright young faces. He got everything out of guys like Matt Besler and John Brooks, and he now has a solid defense -- something the Americans have never been known for. Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin are actual prospects, and if Klinsmann can just find, oh, ten more, the Americans can be very dangerous.
“There are many, many pieces that need to be worked on,” Klinsmann admitted. “It’s little things that decide if you go on in the knockout stage or not. When you go out in the Round of 16, clearly it gives you the message that you have a lot of work still ahead of you.”
But the problem he faces is a classic one. Klinsmann now has to make people care about the team when they are not playing at the World Cup. Moreover, he has to convince the folks that "run" -- and I use that term very loosely -- the mess that is youth, club and college soccer to change their ways. He has to appeal to their hearts and their pocketbooks -- for club soccer is a hugely lucrative business even if it doesn't produce many players -- and that is a herculean task. But unless the kids and the colleges actually start becoming a track to the pros as they are in every other major American sport, he knows the USA is never going to be a world-class soccer power.
United States Soccer Federation also has to swallow hard. Make no mistake, Klinsmann's ways are expensive. Flying the team to Brazil to acclimate in January cost them an eye-watering amount of money. Klinsmann isn't being wasteful -- he knows that to create a world-class program, you have to have the trappings of one -- but this is a big step away from their world of traffic cones and orange slices.
Finally, Klinsmann has to create pressure. The players and coaches put pressure on themselves to win, but what has been always missing from the sport here has been pressure from sports fans and the media. When LeBron James cramps up in the NBA Finals, he gets called out. Did Chris Wondolowski get criticized on sports talk radio for the miss of the World Cup? Nope, not really. Too many people that cover soccer are fans first. That has to change for the sport really to gain the respect here it deserves.
Speaking of pressure, let's begin now. Time now spreads out before the United States, with the next World Cup a full four years away. But there will be other things to do in the meantime. In the summers of 2015 and 2017 there will be Gold Cups. In 2016, there will be a soccer tournament at the Summer Olympics and the one-off Copa America with both South- and Central- and North American teams. In 2017, there is a Confederations Cup as well, provided the USA qualifies. Klinsmann needs to win two of those competitions and he knows that. Winning will cure a lot of what ails the sport in this country.
These will be the times to improve and work on all of those deficiencies and get the next World Cup team ready. But first, Klinsmann plans on rejuvenating some. His team in Brazil counted eight players who were 30 or older.
MLS is drawing big houses -- bigger on average than many well-established European leagues. More Americans traveled to Brazil than from any other nation. People do really get up at 4 AM on a weekend to watch some guys run around in their underwear in Liverpool. What's next is producing more players, and winning more games. MLS has to get find ways to get more fans to watch the games on TV, too. None of this is easy.
But twenty years ago, none of us in this business even imagined we could make a living writing about this sport. We also all worked for newspapers. So things do change. And maybe soccer here will as well.
FOXSoccer.com's Leander Schaerlaeckens contributed to this report.