Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mundial: USA

El futbol, deporte mundial, llegara alguna vez con fuerza a los Estados Unidos?

Aca van dos opiniones opuestas.

PRO: A Pitch From Two Sides
Pro: With TV and tour access to the best in soccer, and MLS on upswing, fans here have it made
By Mike Penner

June 5, 2006

Every four years the World Cup is played, meaning every four years Brazil reaches the final, England goes out in excruciating fashion, Spain goes home two rounds earlier than expected and in newspaper sports departments across the United States, editors can be heard grousing, "World Cup again? Is soccer ever going to make it in this country?"

As I wrote four years ago, the answer remains the same: It already has.

You won't find it in the television ratings and attendance figures of Major League Soccer, which is the first place anti-soccer hardheads go to bang on the wall. So FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo is a blip on the radar screen compared to Spurs vs. Mavericks. So what? That's missing the point.

Saying soccer isn't popular in America because MLS numbers are low is like saying baseball isn't big in America because a lot less people watch Texas League games than National League games. You can't quantify soccer interest in this country by traditional means, not when the true "major league" soccer is played in Europe and South America.

American fans want to watch the best, regardless of the sport. You want to watch the best basketball in the world, you watch the NBA. You want to watch the best golf in the world, you watch the PGA.

You want to watch the best soccer in the world, you watch the English Premier League, or Spain's La Liga, or Italy's Serie A, or Germany's Bundesliga. You want to watch Ronaldinho dribble like a mad magician for Barcelona. You want to watch Thierry Henry laser-point goals home for Arsenal. You want to watch Petr Cech smother opposition shots as Chelsea's goalkeeper.

In other words, how are you going to keep them interested in Real Salt Lake after they've seen Wayne Rooney?

And in 2006, the biggest names in international soccer are more accessible to the average American sports viewer than ever before. Along with ESPN's coverage of MLS and the European Champions League, two soccer-specific TV channels have taken root in the United States — the Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. For the soccer fanatic, or even the soccer curious, the sport played at its highest level is now available in America around the clock.

(Ask a hockey fan to choose: a TV package similar to what soccer has . . . or the Outdoor Life Network?)

Additionally, the recent U.S. summer tours of English powerhouses Manchester United and Chelsea have played to huge crowds. Again, when the best come out to play, Americans will come out to watch.

Of course MLS is going to pale by comparison. MLS has only 10 full seasons under its belt, not 110. The league's history is still too callow, its rivalries too new, its personalities not yet fully developed.

But even at that, MLS is on the upswing. According to, MLS attendance after eight weeks was up more than 2,000 a game — from an average of 14,095 in 2005 to 16,128 in 2006.

And the league's fundamental reason for existence — to develop players capable of competing for the World Cup — has been an indisputable success.

Last World Cup, thanks to the MLS-honed abilities of such players as Landon Donovan, Brian McBride and DaMarcus Beasley, the United States reached the quarterfinals, where the Americans came within a non-whistled handball from taking Germany into overtime.

The United States enters this World Cup tied for fifth with Spain in the latest FIFA world rankings. You can argue the merits of FIFA's methodology here — soccer could certainly use a more reliable and less confusing ratings system, such as, say, the BCS. But there it is today in black and white: the U.S. national soccer team ranked ahead of Portugal, France, Argentina, England and Italy.

Americans like winners, don't they?

Our international basketball team? Barely medaled at the last Olympics.

Hockey? A wipeout at the last Olympics.

Baseball? Failed to even qualify for the last Olympics. And let's not even get started on the World Baseball Classic.

If international standing is the barometer, the United States has become a soccer country. Our women win Olympic gold medals and World Cup championships. Our men are ranked fifth in the world.

Name another sport where we fare as well that doesn't involve quarterbacks (we kind of own a monopoly there) and stock cars.

Whether you like it or not, you are already living in Soccer Nation.

Wake up and smell the coffee in your World Cup.

CON: A Pitch From Two Sides
Con: Apathy continues to keep the slow-moving sport lagging behind in the United States
By Mike Penner
Times Staff Writer

June 5, 2006

Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike.

Take off your tattered Arsenal cap and your cracked shin guards and No. 6 jersey for Scribes FC (proud runners-up in the Los Alamitos Park and Rec Men's 30-and-Over Division) and return to a place you used to roam with feet firmly planted and head not blunted by too many headers.

That place is called Earth.

Welcome back. Not much has really changed since you left.

Football still rules this country, the kind of football that's played with helmets and shoulder pads and lots of timeouts to make room for the car and beer commercials. Here we like our football players larger than life. All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour weighs 310 pounds. That's bigger than two Freddy Adus.

Basketball is a religion here, and we worship at the altar of Phoenix Suns 121, Dallas Mavericks 118. We love our scoring, one basket immediately following another, if not faster, disposable points for a culture based on everything disposable.

We can't appreciate the deft sleight of foot required to create a soccer scoring chance that doesn't result in a score.

We can't relate to the emotional ebb and flow and the intricate tactical maneuvering that causes entire countries to swoon over a 1-nil soccer result.


Isn't he the French point guard who's supposed to be an NBA lottery pick?

It took baseball awhile, about a century or so, but it finally caught on. American sports fans in 2006 don't want craftily pitched 2-1 ballgames. We want Cleveland Indians 12, Chicago White Sox 8 — and let's pretend we're deeply disturbed about steroids.

Soccer can't compete on this landscape, not until they change the rules to make each score worth six points and let players use their hands and encourage them to sling the ball around the field as if it's David Beckham's handbag.

Oh, right. We already did that. It's called the NFL.

Soccer in America has too many things going against it. For one, chewing tobacco is not involved. No exhaust fumes either. You occasionally get them in European soccer, but that comes mainly from the visiting team's bus high-tailing it out of town after stealing a 2-1 win from the home side on a dubious penalty.

You have it right when you say that Americans want to watch the best in the business, the biggest names in the sport.

Who's the biggest name in Major League Soccer? That league based its entire 2004 preseason marketing campaign on Adu, a strategy that tanked its credibility. Come On Out And See Freddy . . . Sit The Bench.

Who's the best player in MLS? Landon Donovan? He has been a dominant force for the Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes, but when he took his game to a higher level, to the German club Bayer Leverkusen, he was a bust in two stints.

MLS got a truckload of publicity last year when Beckham came to Los Angeles to plug his new soccer academy and let slip — wink, wink — that he wouldn't mind playing in America one day. That may or may not happen, but if it does, Beckham probably will be in his mid-30s. Same for Ronaldo, who recently said he'd like to end his career playing in the United States.

Isn't that where pro soccer in this country got into trouble the first time around? When the North American Soccer League said bring us your aging, your over-the-hill, your one-time greats yearning to break free and coast into retirement . . . and the league fizzled out amid general disinterest in the mid-1980s?

That was soccer's chance to stake a claim in the football-baseball-basketball news cycle. The NASL peaked pre-ESPN, unlike NASCAR, the NBA and the NFL, just to name three sports entities MLS will forever be chasing in this country.

And about those FIFA world rankings: I think we can both agree that computer formula is crocked.

If the U.S. truly is the fifth-best team in the world, why are we consensus picks to finish third in our four-team World Cup group — behind the Czech Republic and Italy and ahead of Ghana?

The U.S. is ranked seven slots ahead of Italy. Anyone who actually believes the U.S. will beat Italy on June 17 in Kaiserslautern, please raise your right hand.

Bruce? Bruce Arena? It's OK to take your hands out of your pockets now.

And you, Mike, let me end this with something I told you four years ago, and four years before that, and four years before that.

Get well soon.


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