Monday, June 29, 2009

Soccer: the American Exception

The New York Times doesn't have much of a sports section. When I was living in Jersey, I always took tow papers: one for the sports and the New York Times for everything else.

But though the section lacks comprehensiveness, what is in there is generally OK, particularly for sports you don't follow avidly (for me everything but baseball).

William Rhoden's article on the American loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup title game was therefore rather surprising in its seeming laziness and ignorance. Here's the opener:

Another loss on a major stage: Brazil 3, United States 2.

This is the epitaph in the wake of a heartbreaking loss in Sunday’s Confederations Cup championship game.

Too harsh? Perhaps, considering the United States was facing a great Brazilian team. On the other hand, there must come a point in the discussion of soccer in the United States when the training wheels must be removed. Either this is youth soccer, in which the goal is to let everyone play, or this is the big time, in which second or third place is no longer acceptable.

There was so much momentum heading into Sunday’s game, so much enthusiasm after the United States’ stunning victory over Spain on Wednesday.

"Either this is youth soccer, in which the goal is to let everyone play, or this is the big time, in which second or third place is no longer acceptable?" This is a professional sports writer? Nothing matters but the win?: Then please stop filling inches with tiresome descriptions and analysis--resign even. Anyone can print the results if that's all that matters.

Championship or ignomity is the attitude of someone who ONLY understands the result. An attitude born of ignorance. And if Rhoden is ignorant of soccer, he ought to stop writing about it.

Mind you, I don't follow soccer: I've played quite a bit; I can watch a game and tell what's going on and who is playing well; but I don't know who the current stars are or the state of the game in general.

And no doubt about it, being unable to hold down a 2-0 lead agains Brazil is a disappointment. But those guys are very very good. And Spain, whom the US did beat, is very very good. And the US? Well up until last week you couldn't have gotten most soccer fans around the world to say more than we were "respectable." As in: a team not to be taken lightly, but to be mindfully and handily beaten.

Now, fans around the world are thinking again. That represents success. A big one.
Still, instead of talking about a great triumph, we’re back to talking about what United States soccer needs to break through at home.

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the sport faces two major challenges in the United States. The first is how to continue to attract great athletes. . .

American soccer’s struggle to attract great talent is baffling because there are so many young people looking for something to do. The United States is one of the most powerful nations, one with phenomenal human resources.

The sprawling soccer federations reflect the nation: some have a lot, some have very little. The leadership must find the will — and a way — to redistribute resources. This is crucial for the long-term goal of having a great national team, year in and year out.

The more difficult challenge is to cultivate a broader consumer appetite for soccer in the United States. Debates continue about changing the nature of the sport to fit the American mind-set.

Please, no.

The fate of soccer in the United States is no more in the hands of the current national team than it was in the hands of the great US women's teams of the past (big wins: no change in the niche status of soccer) or the fate of hockey was in the hands of the 1980 gold medal team (big wins: hockey remains a second tier sport).

The fate of soccer in the US is simply not the story of a soccer match, unless you are ignorant and unappreciative of the sport as played on the field. The story of last week is: the US team has a lot more potential than it's been given credit for; but it still has a long way to go before it'll be able to win during crunch time in the world cup.

Mr. Rhoden, if you'd like to write yet another "fate of soccer" article in place of writing about the actual game of soccer as played on the field, please keep those last words of your article ready for your assignment editor, words that will reflect the desires the paper's readership: "Please, no."