Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Fish Meet Barrel

Much like Martin Luther King, Jr., I too have a dream. Only mine involves waking one day to find there isn't yet another blog post about why soccer isn't popular in the US or why the sport is doomed to fail here.

Yeah, well apparently dreams deferred end up at UF.

This piece went up at Top Ten Chicago Sports on Monday. And while it was obviously written by someone who knows a little bit about futbol, it is still relatively poorly argued.

First off, if your contention is that soccer is doomed to fail here in the US, you might want to establish that it is currently failing.

It's a data point of one, but the ratings for this season's Champions League final between United and Chelsea kind of suggest otherwise.

When the Spanish language broadcast is included, the match drew 950,000 homes and over 1.3 million viewers. And that is likely lowballing as the Neilsens don't account for mass viewing such as bars. Again, this is a data point of one, but I went to one bar to get a seat an hour before game time to watch and it was already SRO. I went to another up the street and got the last table. So by kickoff it was stand or look elsewhere. This for a match in the middle of a Wednesday workday. All of those people, they're not even in the number. Even without the Spanish language viewer boost, it marked the first time that a Champions League match topped the 1 million viewer mark.

A little more evidence? Canada and Brazil drew 47,000 fans over the weekend for a friendly... that was played in Seattle. If you are so geographically retarded as to not know that Seattle is neither in Brazil or Canada, then maybe stop reading now.

Tomorrow (Wednesday June 4, 2008), Mexico will play Argentina in San Diego. Can't get an attendance figure for a game that hasn't been played yet, but when I went to the Ticketmaster site to try to purchase 2 together, the only tickets left available were the ridiculously priced $300 premium seats. So, it's likely to be close to a capacity crowd. Again, San Diego, not in Mexico or Brazil.

So, just a couple of examples that suggest soccer is doing pretty okay in America.

Still, it's worth looking at the individual ten arguments supporting the basic thesis that might not even be true. We'll get to that, but first, indulge us a comment on the piece's intro.

The categorization of the "European Cup" as the "Winter Olympics of soccer" is simply wrong, and wrong in multiple ways. Okay, "multiple" is only two, but first it's not the "European Cup" it's the European Championships (or Euro if your nasty); second, the implication (or maybe the inference I'm making) that this is somehow a less exciting sibling to its World Cup brother is arguably wrong (I take it the analogy is World Cup: Euro::Summer Olympics:Winter Olympics). Many people—and count some of us UF'ers among them—consider the European Championships to be better than the World Cup. Why? No Asian, African, and CONCACAF filler.

Sure the African nations are getting better, but until they learn to defend they are not going to be making a cameo in the semis any time soon. The Asians? Just not athletic enough. And while the Americans were the only team to pull a point off eventual champions Italy in the last Cup, they needed an own-goal to do it. Mexico is delusional and our third place team is usually a lock for last place in its WC group.

Still, I'll indulge... (To see the full points to which I'm responding, again, the original blog post is here).

10 No big-name American stars.

So what? I was once in Chachapoyas Peru. It's fucking tiny. Didn't even have electricity 24-7 when I was there. I saw some kid who couldn't have been older than six with a Michael Jordan jersey on and once he pegged us as Americans he came running up to us pointing at his shirt and saying the name "Michael Jordan." Why? I don't know. Maybe the kid was a 'tard. But the biggest stars transcend nationality. Didn't matter that Michael Jordan wasn't Peruvian. Sure it might help soccer if Christiano Ronaldo was from Jersey. I might not want to punch his face so badly as a Manc in if he were scoring at a ridiculous clip for the USMNT but the color of his passport isn't hindering the sport here in America.

9 Politics

I'm not even sure what the author is getting at here. Is he talking about college soccer? College soccer is unwatchable. If he wants to make a point about poor player development in college, that I'll buy. But it's kind of hard to criticize this point when I can't make sense of it.

8 Few Big International Games

Let me go line by line here:

"US soccer has to qualify for the World Cup in a group that contains quite possibly the weakest international squads. (CONCACAF)"

It's not possibly the weakest. And it's not even close. Oceania is by far the worst. By far. They don't even get their own bid (that's why the Australians joined Asia). CONCACAF gets three. Admittedly, we're no Europe, but nobody else is. After Brazil and Argentina even South America (CONMEBOL) has a substantial drop off.

"Mexico is the only real opponent they face. Because they have racked up so many wins, the US has gone into the last two World Cups with very high rankings on the world’s list, (Top 15 in 2002, Top 10 in 2006) adding to the mockery when they are destroyed by the likes of the Czech and Ghana in the previous WC."

People who understand the game knew that the Americans were horribly overrated by FIFA. That was a flaw with the ranking system and it has since been changed. However, there is no shame in getting beaten by the Czechs or Ghana. The former were ranked in the top 5 entering the last World Cup (and ranking irregularities aside, with Rosicky, Nedved, Koller, Cech, the Czechs were an absolutely legit side). The US also got jobbed on a couple of calls in the Ghana match, and Claudio Reyna made the type of mistake that, when you make at that level, you pay for it. Ergo, we got eliminated.

"But with Mexico being the biggest rivalry, and America in general not having any problem what so ever with the country, it is difficult to truly make a rivalry out of the two. Soccer fans that hate the Mexican national team remind me of parents of U-10 teams that hate a particular area of Illinois because their son cannot beat the local team. It's so petty it sounds ridiculous."

"Whatsoever" is one word. And the US and Mexico rivalry is big and nasty and the teams hate each other. It's actually made for some pretty exciting matches. Yeah, they've been our bitch as of late, but they've got a ton of young talent (Gio Dos Santos, Nery Castillo, etc.) and this rivalry is only going to get better. And isn't some pettiness at the heart of all rivalries? That's what makes them, you know, rivals.

Anyway, what's the actual criticism here? Really. I think the author wants to say that we don't play that many meaningful international games. In about a 10-day span (starting last Wednesday) we're playing England, Spain, and Argentina. Hard to do better than that. It's also such a crowded fixture schedule year round that it's hard to get a lot of marquee games. Credit to Bob Bradley for putting together that trio ahead of WC qualifying.

7 The game is too slow

Again, says who? And the author seems to be equating scoring with pace. There is often little correlation between the two. Games can go box to box with plenty of action and still finish 1-1. Ugly, unwatchable games can finish 4-4. Did you watch the Champions League final? That was 120 minutes of soccer and it produced two goals. And it was riveting stuff. What's the obsession with scoring that people in this country seem to think soccer needs? Lots of scoring doesn't necessarily mean excitement, it usually means shitty defense. Need an American analog? The last Super Bowl, that incredibly exciting one between Giants and the Patriots that the NFL's official site says "will go down as one of the greatest ever played" (yes, I know, the official site's job is part hype), it finished 17-14, or the soccer equivalent of 2.5-2 (yeah, that reads "2.5"... not sure what the soccer equivalent of a field goal is).

6 MLS is a joke

It's not. It's only kind of one. It's not well-respected and justifiably so. It is a second rate league. But the quality of play has improved immensely over the years and, by our horribly unscientific own UF pool, it ranks as the 10th best league in the world (scan the archives for it). That's not too bad for a league that's not even 15 years old. And blaming Clark for England's first goal—and what that has to do with the quality of MLS, I'm not entirely sure—against the US last week is like blaming Mrs. Lincoln for picking the seats she did for Our American Cousin. Okay, that's not a great analogy, but we spent half the first half giving up free kicks around the box. It was the shit marking on the free kick that led to the Terry goal, not the free kick itself. Anyway, if your argument is: the MLS player gave up the goal to England, therefor MLS sucks, what's your argument for the almost all-MLS USMNT that made it to the quarters of the 2002 World Cup?

5 Too much structure

I'm not sure how structured practice stifles creativity. If you want to rail on young parents for being super-anal and putting their kids into organized activities that they might have no talent for (like soccer), I'll listen to that argument. Player development in the US sucks. Young parents are fucking annoying. But those two things combined aren't going to stop truly gifted players from getting noticed.

4 Athletes head to other sports.

See, if you had just written the last sentence of this section and left it at that, I would have been totally on board with you. But making such a crappy argument, with the rest of it, kind of undermines the larger point. Do you really think there are 50 people in this country right now who are shaking their Magic 8 Ball and asking it if they should go to England to try to hack it in League 2 or move to Atlanta to race in the Prestone Anti-Freeze Truck Series*? Plus I don't think my grandfather ever watched any baseball, so I'm not sure how that's even relevant.

(* I have no idea what the actual sponsor for the series is, nor do I care enough to look it up)

3. Most important moment?

"US soccer’s most defining moment was when Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after hitting the game-winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final."

If that's not 100% your opinion, then maybe you could source it. I wouldn't put that on a list of Top 25 defining moments for soccer in the US. I'll pass on unpacking the sexist overtones in the rest of the argument.

2. Soccer’s a thinking game

Of all the points made here, I bet this is the one that most soccer fans in the US would agree with. But it's fucking elitist. Even though I also think Americans are dumb, it doesn't mean they can't comprehend good soccer. Look at the rest of the world, it's filled with fucking stupid people, and they can somehow understand the complexities of this game that escape us? Bullshit. The beauty of soccer is in its simplicity: kick the ball to the other goal, you can't use your hands. That's about it for rules. So really, is the game that nuanced that our country full of glorified 7-11 tellers can't grasp it? Sometimes, maybe. But not really.

1. Because we don't need it

Do we need any sports? Yes we have other options. And yes most of us would rather watch cars go round in circles (see, I agree, we are stupid). But the same economy that makes Miley Cyrus a billionaire can also support Wilco, Sonic Youth, and Tom Waits. Soccer might not ever be one of the big 3 or 4 sports in this country, but A) who ever suggested it had to? And b) that doesn't mean it can't still be wildly popular. If you look at nothing more than the population trends in America, you'd be stupid to think that soccer is doomed in this country.


ΓΌ75 said...

You tell him. I love that, in a non-World Cup year, we are seeing a lot of these "Soccer will never be big in the US" posts. For it to be our international off-season and this many people are thinking about it says all I could say about soccer being in the US sports fan's consciousness

The Fan's Attic said...

The minute a critical mass of people, business people and athletes alike, realize you can make a shit-ton of money in soccer, it will become a major player in the US sports scene.

Business people have already realized this and once the athletes see this possibility there will be a shift in their sporting focus.

It won't be a major shift that unseats basketball or football, but soccer will attract talented athletes that don't have the freakish height or bulk that is necessary for professional success in those sports. And, those athletes will eventually being pulling down serious cash to attract other athletes to the sport.

Cowden said...

Thank you for picking apart that idiot. Well done.

Ian said...

Hoo boy. Point #2 is the ludicrous of all of them. Has the author ever tried to explain baseball or football to a foreigner? Its like fucking differential equations or something its so complicated. Do 90% of American sports fans really understand the intricacies of the cover 2 or the hit and run? I say no.

Goat said...

I thought Canada was in Minnesota.

Goat said...

The thing that many of these folks fail to comprehend is the role that tradition plays in so much of any society's culture. We like the sports we like because they have history and sprang up and grew popular because of particular historical circumstances. That's not to say that these things are permanent or aren't subject to ebbs and flows in popularity. See, for instance, the relative decline in horse racing's or boxing's popularity or the relative increase in pro football's or basketball's or NASCAR's popularity. With time and gradual increases in exposure, I think soccer will likewise increase in popularity although it may never supplant the big 4 (3? 5?) sports. Likewise, certain circumstances may conspire to see the decline in popularity of one of the big 4. All I'm saying is, quit over-analyzing, especially if you don't know what you're talking about, enjoy the game and spread the gospel.

Goat said...

Also, I'm pretty sure San Diego is in Mexico.

PJMixer said...

Great response to another poor attempt to dis the beautiful game. I've written a lot about football on my blog and constantly waging battle with North American sports fans on why football is such a great sport. The one thing I always come back to is the depth of its support around the world...

The Passion of Football

"I've often tried to explain the intensity of the sport to North Americans. I ask if they could picture one sport that combines the legacies, fan support and history across the NBA, NHL, NFL and major league baseball. Imagine the rivalries and intensity with the Chicago Cubs, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dallas Cowboys and Boston Red Sox in one sport !".

Two other things - why do these writers continuously try and put down soccer in the US ? Is it written into the constitution or something ?

And finally, playing the numbers game...an estimated 1 billion people in over 600 million households all over the world tuned in to today's [April 16th] Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United. 1 billion fans of anything can't be wrong can they ?

In closing, even as a (typical) disappointed England fan, I'm still excited about the upcoming Euros...bring it on lads !

Eladio said...

@Ian: So true about explaining US sports to non-Americans. I was once at a college baseball game and was sitting behind 3 people. I gathered that the couple had brought an English friend to the game, and were trying to explain it. The best part was when they were explaining the foul line, and the English-woman said, "Foul? Does it smell bad?"

Personally I couldn't give a shit if Soccer ever becomes popular in the US. I got my FSC, my Setanta, and my ESPN2/ESPN Classic. This year the only Arsenal game I didn't get to see was the last game of the season against Sunderland. I like it, I enjoy it, and I've found others who feel the same. If the majority don't give a shit, I'm not going to try to convert them.

Phil Barnes said...

Precious Roy, thanks for the post, love to see that I infuriated you so much that you wrote your own post on it. I’ll try to answer to a few statements you made. First off, I would like to say that I would love to see soccer on TV more often. The Neilsen’s ratings you showed are promising, but we are talking about one game that arguably involved 15 of the World’s most known players. So of course it will attract viewers. Your “soccer’s popular because two bars were filled” argument is laughable because I went to a pub where I had to ask the bartender to change one of the 15 TVs from a Cubs game to the Euro one. So that doesn’t add much validity.

Numbers regarding these international teams playing in the US can be skewed. Brazil is one team we are talking about. What 12-year-old soccer player doesn’t want to drag his Dad out to get a chance to them play. Mexico playing in San Diego? Came on now, where do you think the crowd is coming from? One could take a trolley from San Diego and get to Tijuana in 25 minutes.

I do not see where you find the European Championships to be of higher quality. You mentioned the rise of the African nations, but leaving off countries like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Japan and Korea does not make it of does not make it better. I see your point about the Oceania teams and 3rd CONCACAF, but your “filler” argument is irrelevant for the simple fact that there are only 16 teams allowed into Euro, and 32 in the World Cup. Of course you are going to have teams you feel don’t deserve to be in a prestigious tournament, but the addition of five teams that have a definite shot of winning and another eight that have the ability to at least play spoiler, it makes the quality that much more exciting.

I do not understand your Michael Jordan jersey argument. The “Jumpman” icon is one of the most well-known symbols in the World, so it should come as no surprise that you saw a “23” jersey somewhere outside of the US.

Bob Bradley did do a tremendous job scheduling these games, but they don’t matter, other than for the World Rankings, which you even stated was flawed. (Am I wrong?) While you did bring up a good point, I was talking more about games that are deemed important. We just don’t see enough of them.

I am glad that you are in agreement to the MLS, but I think you are even being generous when you say it’s a second-rate league. While it was probably wrong to call out Rico Clark for the free-kick goal, it was the dumbest of fouls, something that even John Harkes mentioned on a replay of the goal. Is Harkes a soccer God? Absolutely not, but the fact that more than one person noticed it was enough of a point.

While I am not a racing fan by any means, I do know the Truck series is a stepping stone to Nascar. And while I do not have numbers to back this up, I believe in certain areas, especially the South, racing dominates even baseball and basketball. The amount of youths interested in racing could compare to that of soccer, with many more adults more interested in racing than soccer.

My most important moment is completely opinion, you are correct, but please tell me a more influential time in US soccer history. The own goal by Costa to put the US up over Portugal in ’02? In 1994 they advanced because of a technicality. We don’t even know what happened in the 1-0 win over England in 1950. The biggest win in men’s history --in my opinion that is—came in the 2-0 win over Mexico in ’02, and I cannot even compare that to the hype drawn by the run the women made in 1999. Give me a more memorable moment.

The only reason I am suggesting that soccer needs to be a top four sport is because if it’s not, will it succeed in the end? Success in this country is gauged by dollars and if a sport doesn’t have ultimate success, than it doesn’t have money to make it run 25 years down the line. Look at hockey. The lockout in 2002 nearly ruined the NHL because of lack of support once it came back. It took this youth resurgence to rejuvenate the league. This will go back to my “structure” point when I say that I’m not so sure the MLS can afford to ever have a down period because they won’t be able to rely on a truly gifted athlete (a Crosby or Ovechkin ) to pull them out of a rut. This won’t happen because truly gifted athlete can’t succeed in the US when they are enamored with this thought that they have to play fundamental soccer. And you are looking at proof every time the US takes the field.

Sorry for the length Roy, but I hope this clears things up a little. Feel free to respond back, and thanks for attempting to enlighten.

Precious Roy said...

Happy to respond.

First, funny that you were in Chicago for that. Which bar did you go to? Sluggers? Redmonds? The first bar I walked into was Ginger's, which is a soccer bar, but that was already filled an hour before the game. The second was Fearon's, which is hardly a popular soccer watching venue. I was there for the United v. Chlesea match the third to last week of the season (maybe the most critical match of the entire EPL season) and there were maybe 7 people there. I'm gussing that the Globe was also packed and Fado was insane. So, no, it wasn't just any bar. There are too damn many of them in Chicago. But people in the US who watch soccer definitely love to watch with other people. So the Neilsen number is definitely way lowballing it.

As for Mexico playing in San Diego, sure most people think that's practically Mexico, but that's part of my point. If by the US you mean "white sports loving people in America" you are missing a huge part of the picture. In 30 years white people are going to be the minority in this country and no border fence can change that (don't hold me to that number, I just pulled it out of my ass to make the point). So, if for no other reason than latins love futbol and this country is experiencing a huge latino population shift, there is almost no way soccer is doomed in this country. Quite the opposite.

Re: Jordan. Uh, that's my point. Michael Jordan didn't need to be American to be a global icon. If he had been half-Iranian, half-Togolese and every bit the same player, Nike and Gatorade and the NBA still would have turned him into the same global icon (Assuming he found his way to the NBA).

The Euros being better than the Cup... Put it this way, if the choice of the next team in to the Euros is either Japan or England, which do you think makes it a better tourney? I can't think you will find a single non-Japanese person who say "Japan" (save maybe around here where taking shots at the Three Lions is a recreational activity). Brazil and Argentina missing, yeah, that's bad, but that is it. Paraguay, T&T, Tunisia, etc., please, the only reason there are any walkovers in the Euro this year is because Austria is cohost. Christ, the Group of Death in the last World Cup had American and Ghana in it. The Group of Death for this Euro has Italy, France, and the Netherlands.

"Hype" and "memorable" are different things, and God did Nike ever get behind that Women's team. My handful of most memorable moments would include Brian McBride's bloody face. The goal at T&T to qualify in 1990. Torsten Fring's handball clearance off the line. The Columbian own goal. And if you want just one image, there was the best shot ever of this fat and unhappy Mexico fan in a ridiculous sombrero that ABC took a crowd shot of after the Round of 16 match in Korea/Japan. I've looked for that on the Net and never seen it but I'd pay for a copy of that.

If your general argument is that you think soccer needs to be a top 4 to survive, then that's pretty ridiculous. Even the crappy MLS is telling millionaires who want to buy teams to call back when you find people worth hundreds of millions to back you. The sport is doing fine in this country and it's growing. It's not going to supplant the NFL or MLB in my lifetime, but so what?

Sorry for any typos of things I might have missed but I'm on dial-up today and running late.

Ian said...

Phil - Sorry, still think you are full of shit.

"leaving off countries like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Japan and Korea does not make it better."


"Of course you are going to have teams you feel don’t deserve to be in a prestigious tournament, but the addition of five teams that have a definite shot of winning"

I'll give you the two South American teams. But Korea, Japan, and Mexico as potential winners? Really? Do you even watch soccer?

Eladio said...

"In 1994 they advanced because of a technicality."

What technicality are you referring to? The advancement requirements for the 1994 WC to the knockout stages were:

The six group winners, the six group runners-up, and the four third-placed teams with the best records.

In 1994, 2 3rd place teams had 6 points, and 2 had 4 points. No one else had 4 points in 3rd place, so they advanced just as they should have.

On another note, the 2nd best thing FIFA ever did was to go to 8 groups and get rid of that stupid "best 3rd place finishers" standard.

Phil Barnes said...

My point about playing in San Diego was not that Hispanics don’t count but that it is that that is one region that favors a particular team. Tickets are going to sell there because of proximity and by who lives in the area. Let’s put that match in New York or Philadelphia and see the draw. It won’t be nearly as many people.
With the Jordan topic, I was trying to say that US Soccer needs a face; an instant rising star. Donovan is not the answer, nor is Adu for the simple fact that he left the MLS. I am not picking these names out because they are who I would recommend but because these are the guys the US has tried to draw as “stars.”
I completely agree that England is the better team than Japan. But if the best 16 teams in the World play to their expectations in the World Cup, they will have the ability in the second round to establish themselves as the prestigious group. No, they won’t get to play another round-robin, but nine times out of 10 the 16 that are left are a better 16 than the group that started the Euro tournament.
Yes, Nike is to blame (or praise) for the Women in ’99. But the simple fact that they took that as the “memorable image” is telling. Are more traditional American sports’ fans going to say they remember McBride’s bloody face more than Chastain’s sports bra? I really don’t think so.
To Ian, Ok Korea, Japan and Mexico may not have realistic shots at winning a World Cup, but do teams like Switzerland, Russia and Poland have any better chances? Korea took 4th in ’02, and Mexico hasn’t missed a second round since 1990.
Alright thanks again guys.

Precious Roy said...

Not sure how to make these comparisons (do you compare WC teams to the nearest Euro or the current, do you go 2 years forward or back?) but from WC 2006:


I think I could make a convincing case that none of those sides is as strong as any non-host country in this year's Euro (the Ukraine being the easiest argument).

From 2002:


Harder to compare older teams but almost the entirety of the non-host field would consistently beat any of these teams.

I give an asterisk to Korea and Australia because of Guus Hiddink. That guy is a mercenary miracle worker, but the countries regress the moment he leaves.

You claimed 9 out of 10 of the final 16 in the WC would be better than the 16-team Euro field. I have 2 of 2 that aren't.

Precious Roy said...

It occurs to me how silly my last comment was, not because it's wrong, but because we are now arguing the minutiae and starting to get away from the point that the original premise was pretty much dead wrong.

Soccer isn't doomed in the US. No, it's not a top 4 sport but it is growing by almost any metric and ratings (for marquee events at least) are exceeding expectations.

That's my problem with most of these types of posts: that they start from a position that really isn't tenable.

Phil Barnes said...

Alright Roy, like I said before, thanks for the comments. I'll surely check out your site in the future.

avocado said...

Good post man.