Not too long ago, in a World Cup not so far away, the USA went 3-and-out. A humiliating beat down by the Czechs in the opening game was somewhat salvaged by a gritty performance against the Italians; alas, after two games the US was the doormat of the group. In the end, a 2-1 loss in our final game of the opening round stamped our return ticket home from Europe. So we went home… happy. Wait, what?
Why happy? Because this was 20 years ago and Italia ‘90 was our first World Cup since 1950! It didn’t matter that we had to suffer through commercials at the 22 minute mark of each half (thanks TNT). It didn’t matter that we had the youngest squad in the tournament (shame about Ricky Davis being out injured). It didn’t matter that Bob Gansler was also the coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and we hated him (not the way you hate a truly evil someone like Nick Saban, or a Grade-A jackleg like Lane Kiffin, but you get it). It didn’t matter because WE WERE IN THE WORLD CUP!
Flash forward to 2006 and the eerily similar group stage 3-and-out was received a bit differently this time. Expectations. We are now a nation of soccer players. We have multiple TV channels dedicated to covering only soccer. We have stores where we can pick up a Fulham Dempsey jersey and new pair of red, or blue, or green, or (don’t laugh, I have a pair) orange, or white, or (if you’re feeling crazy) copa-mundial-black boots to go with it. We have academies. We have camps. We have pickup games. We have “U-6” and “over-50” leagues. Most importantly: we have a professional league…let’s hope.
Take a moment to look back at the age of the 1990 World Cup squad. The average was in the low 20s, which means many of the players were born around the late 1960s. Anyone care to guess what happened in 1975 to turn these elementary school kids on to soccer? Edison Arantes do Nascimento: Pele’. The NASL may have been a fringe league that did itself in by spending way too much money on semi-retired big names, but for a brief while you couldn’t explain the difference between the NFL and the NASL to a kid. Both were professional leagues featuring bona fide superstars; and my parents could buy tickets so we could dress in our team colors, file in to a large stadium with those not unlike us, and root like hell for a hometown victory. Because of this, soccer was a real want for me and not some disease worthy of quarantine: which is how quite a few stodgy members of mainstream sports media still approach the game.
Back to the present and the state of our professional league. Sure the MLS may not be the Premier League (many would argue that it is barely the CC Championship), but our kids don’t know that. The MLS may fear instability in expanding too quickly or loosening its grip on player transfers just as players may fear instability over short term contracts and busboy-like salaries, but with all due respect, this isn’t about any of you. This is about not stunting the growth the game in the US. If anyone can work this out, it’s my man Sunil Gulati: President of the USSF, President of the NE Revs, and no less than an economics lecturer at Columbia. Surely he can piece this thing together – with the hope we do not end up like the NHL or MLB.
I have not watched a hockey game since the 2004-05 NHL season was scrubbed. I have not watched a baseball game since the World Series was cancelled in 1994. To be clear: even though I played soccer in college, my father and brother both pitched in college and I have always been a better shortstop than holding midfielder. Anyway, I doubt either league misses me very much…ok, maybe they do a little and one of them might, say, overlook steroid use in an effort to win me back. Not gonna happen, I’ll stick to the joy of watching minor league ball. While I would come back to soccer, there are many who would treat soccer as I have treated the NHL and MLB: left for dead. A work stoppage at this point would do little to pique US interest in SA 2010; I fear the more likely scenario is that it may produce MORE of an anti-soccer sentiment. I can just hear Jim Rome getting his goatee in a lather in readiness to go all Mohamar-Spurrier/Satan-Reinsdorf on us Capri-Sun-drinking orange-wedge eaters.
Like I said, I put my full faith in Mr. Gulati. He has worked too hard to get to this point and stumble. I have faith that we will have an MLS season kicking off on schedule, even if it means Lando has to return from Everton. Surely Gulati is feeling pressure from all sides to find a positive resolution for their demands, but I am hoping there is no pressure greater than that which he puts on himself merely to breach this impasse. Lest he force another generation of supporters to murmur those infamous words…