Wednesday, July 01, 2009

American Soccer Is Fine, Thank You

Ken Silverstein, who I've been reading for awhile, went ninety degrees with an unusual (for him anyway) soccer-related post, in which he reveled in the U.S. defeat by Brazil on Sunday:

All the hype in American newspapers about the national team’s second place finish obscures the fact that the U.S. team is mediocre and should never have been in the final to begin with. They lost three of their five games and stumbled into the second round by pure luck. Yes, they beat Spain, but upsets can happen on any given day, especially in a tournament where (after the first round) every match is an elimination game.

The U.S. got lucky early against Brazil, but showed its true colors by sitting back the rest of the way and being stomped into submission. It leaves me very hopeful for the team’s early exit from next year’s World Cup.

Now today he provides some context for his seemingly context-less hate; he lived in Brazil for some years and apparently fell in love with the quality of Brazilian soccer. So his oddly bitter comments about American soccer are motivated merely by the fact that he's a fan of the team that won the match, so there's nothing at all unusual there (read any of my comments about the Redkins or Eagles after a Cowboys victory over them; few things are as pleasurable as kicking someone you don't like when they're down.)

Anyway as you can see, success by the US men's soccer team prompts the oddest of reactions. Silverstein, and some of his readers, can't stand American soccer because of the dull and unimaginative play of American soccer players. Which is not really the team's fault, and anyway you really have to hold 98% of the soccer being played in the world in low esteem if Brazil is your favorite squad.

Then there's the over-selling of the team's success, and the over-disappointment in the team's failure. To both of these columnists I would like to say: the success of soccer in America does not necessarily rise and fall with the success of the US men's national team. In fact, the success of the US men's national team doesn't necessarily follow the success of the US men's national team. Now certainly it doesn't hurt. I think the case can be made that but for the success of the squad in the 1994 World Cup, Major League Soccer may not have been so quick to take off. But remember, MLS was already in the works when that tournament began; it was just a little bit of luck that the men's team did so well and put some extra butts in the seats those first few years. But it seems that sports journalists and other pundits are always looking for that "breakthrough" moment in soccer, that one victory (or string of victories) that will finally cement American soccer as a sport of eminence in our nation. But that just isn't how it works. No one victory can launch soccer onto the national stage in our country, to rival football, basketball, baseball (though maybe hockey...someday) and no one victory will "prove" to the world that the US is the equal of long-standing soccer powers like Italy, Germany, Brazil or Argentina. For one, witness the past success of US teams. In 1994 they upset Colombia to make it to the second round. What happened four years later in 1998? They lost all three first round matches and finished 32nd of 32 teams. But then in 2002 they defeated powerhouse Portugal, defeated Mexico in the second-round and went toe-to-toe with Germany in the quarterfinals. But then in 2006 they were clobbered by the Czech Republic, upset by Ghana, and left after the first round. As I stated earlier, success has not guaranteed least from one tournament to the next. However, if you look back over the last twenty years, you can see a team that has gone from being an outsider on the international scene, to a team that can reliably be expected to qualify for the World Cup. That's progress, but of the gradual sort. So too is the progress of the popularity of soccer among Americans. Fifteen years ago there was no national professional soccer league. Now there is one that is expanding. Fifteen years ago only a handful of Americans were good enough to play soccer overseas. Now, dozens of Americans play for European soccer squads. A victory over Brazil would not suddenly see a dozen or more Americans starting with top-flight European clubs, and the loss does not mean that those players will be sent home and MLS will fold. If anything, the media attention is only an indication of how the non-soccer fans feel about the sport. It's nice to see the reaction, especially if it gets US, MLS or even European club games on ESPN or ESPN2, but it's not necessary to get their approval for soccer to advance in this country. Soccer's been growing in popularity for almost two decades now, and it looks to continue to do a slow and steady pace, and that's fine by me.

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