On Monday my post is generally related to a timely sports topic prominently in the news, is focused on the business of sports or covers a sports subject at random.
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Soccer in the United States has progressed to a point where white-hot, primal scream diatribes like this one — “Soccer: Official Sport of Terrorism” — are thankfully the exception and not as much the rule.
In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, the casual fan in the U.S. — as well as the fanatic — has had access to plenty of sophisticated stories, documentaries, interviews and more in an almost oversaturated media environment that treats the sport as the healthy niche it has become. On the field, and as fans making up a viable new segment of the American sports industry.
Given soccer’s non-exceptional history in North America, what’s happened since USA ’94 — “that wonderful summer” as SB Nation put it, in its terrific oral history of that event — is truly astonishing.
The kinds of explainer pieces and books, such as “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism” that helped Americans of my late Baby Boom generation understand the game and its global historical context seem outdated for 40-and-unders.
Their generation doesn’t feel the need to emigrate, as the late David Wangerin did, to be immersed in the game they love. They’re aware of its long history as “the sport of America’s future,” but that future has been here for a while.
They’re especially clued into the painful details of American soccer’s more recent catastrophes, as Ty Duffy fleshed out for The Big Lead about the 1998 World Cup. They’ve grown up with this kind of debacle, visible on their television screens and with mocking mainstream American media coverage to follow, searing memories for a lifetime.
And yet, the name-calling continues, even from other shores. British journalist Jonathan Clegg hotly complained in The Wall Street Journal that he hates American soccer fans, as if there’s something contrived about them, what he calls their “elaborate affectation” with the game.
If that were the case, then why would Major League Soccer — which didn’t exist 20 years ago — keep adding franchises? Why is television exposure increasing along an unprecedented path? Why do sports marketers continue to froth at the mostly young American male and Hispanic demographic that is the foundation for the sport’s fan base?
Longtime Olympic journalist Alan Abrahamson pointed out some of these things while penning the first “curb your enthusiasm” piece I’ve seen from an American media type over the weekend, including his declaration that the U.S. is “not a soccer nation.”
This isn’t a red-blooded screed, but he’s trying to make the point that for all the progress that’s been made, “there are heavy economic, social, cultural and peer incentives working against soccer.”
All true, to a point. Abrahamson rattles off respectable numbers for the American soccer industry, but only as they stack up against more gigantic fare. If American soccer supporters were proclaiming that their sport would one day eclipse even Roger Goodell’s under-siege gridiron empire, then I could understand all this.
But they’re not. “It’s so obvious that football is America’s game,” Abrahamson writes, stating the obvious.
Comparing crowds of 100,000-plus at the Big House for an Ohio State-Michigan game to a soccer crowd between the two schools that’s under 1,000 doesn’t say anything about American soccer. It’s a farcical, irrelevant comparison.
Abrahamson would have done well to explore the talent dearth in America that still exists, the reality of a sports culture in which our best athletes still opt for football, basketball and baseball. Millions of boys continue to take up soccer — many, many more than were playing 20 years ago, in fact — but the U.S. development system has struggled to produce any kind of world-class talent.
That’s been the challenge facing U.S. men’s national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who in his controversial two-plus years has rattled the American soccer establishment along these lines more than anything else.
Even before he dismissed Landon Donovan from World Cup, Klinsmann was turning heads for insisting national team players go to Europe as much as possible. Donovan wasn’t the only player in these crosshairs; Klinsmann took a dim view of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey returning to MLS.
Klinsmann also raised eyebrows by taking several German-Americans, most with no international experience, to Brazil.
Both the WSJ and The New York Times unfurled post-Donovan longform pieces on Klinsmann’s methods. The latter, by Sam Borden, went deep on his exacting demands that some in American soccer circles — including Bruce Arena, one of his predecessors — think is a bit much.
Klinsmann is no stranger to doubters and critics. who coached Germany in the 2006 World Cup in his homeland, has been dogged by charges from former players, including Philipp Lahm, the current captain of Die Mannschaft.
In his 2011 memoir, Lahm wrote that Klinsmann wasn’t the tactician, but more of a physical fitness guru. Lahm was especially harsh on Klinsmann for his failed tenure at Bayern Munich that didn’t even last a season. But the former World Cup winner brushed off Lahm’s rejoinder, just as he did harsh allegations last year from within the U.S. camp, in his inimitable fashion.
In the NYT piece, Klinsmann also questioned other things about the American sports culture, including a lucrative late-career contract for Kobe Bryant. This honked off ESPN‘s Michael Wilbon, who ordered Klinsmann — married to an American and who’s raising children here — to “get the hell out of America!”
Last week, Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com unleashed some of his classic trolling action, trashing Klinsmann for saying the U.S. can’t win the World Cup and therefore not believing in miracles. “Herb Brooks fires me up. Jürgen Klinsmann pisses me off.”
Knuckle-headed media rants will never go completely away, but they are increasingly rare. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News, who’s in Brazil, put all of this in the proper context:
“The United States has been serious about soccer for less than two decades. . . . At this stage of the sport’s progression in this country, it is no more realistic to expect the U.S. to win the World Cup than to expect Stephen F. Austin to win the NCAA Tournament.
“Donovan is and/or was a great player, but his level of play is not so extraordinary that a nation that has been investing in soccer for two decades maybe should have produced a few more like him in the years since he emerged.
“If Klinsmann’s silly critics want the U.S. to truly have a chance to win the World Cup, that’s what will be needed.”
The arguments will continue to rage about whether we have to be more like Europe, blend in more of an Hispanic style, figure out more creative, productive ways to use the millions spent on developing top-shelf soccer players, and whether we’ll even win the whole thing.
These are good arguments to have, because they indicate the continuing growing pains of a country with a vibrant soccer nation — much to the chagrin of the fading blowhards and clever skeptics.