June 2010

Tomorrow Arrives Today For U.S. Soccer

In a country where less than two decades ago, you needed Univision or an all Italian-station if you lived in the Tri-State Area to watch club football; it is safe to say tomorrow is finally here.

In a country where just over two decades ago Paul Caliguiri found the back of the net against Trinidad and Tobago, ending forty years in the wilderness for American soccer, and his only domestic reward, at least initially, was a short clip at the end of Sportscenter; it is safe to say tomorrow is finally here.

In a country that with the help of a legend in Pele, the world’s most spectacular tournament to record crowds in 1994, played proudly after spending the bulk of two years together as a team, and used what was a small step, a little popularity growth spurt, to launch its own professional league with an eye towards player development and youth, not player retirement; tomorrow is finally here.

In a country where for years first or second generation immigrant mothers and fathers coached youth teams that shared facilities with Pop Warner teams, had limited practice time, played on baseball diamonds and in abandoned farmhouse fields, all the while assuring parents that one day the game would be truly important in this country they had come to love so much too; tomorrow is finally here.

In a country where twelve years ago, the Americans left their fortress in the French countryside with one goal, little pride and zero points, leaving many casual onlookers feeling vindicated about their claims that the America would never matter in soccer, and that 1994 would soon be a memory, one that was more successful momentary event than successful evolutionary experiment; tomorrow is finally here.

In a country where a group of passionate and skilled women became water-cooler conversation, Mia Hamm became America’s sporting sweetheart and Brandi Chastain became more than that, an icon who proved Americans could deliver at the highest competitive level, if only we were willing to pay attention; tomorrow is finally here.

In a country where we were ready to pay attention, where wake-up calls changed to 5:00 AM, if only for a moment, for so many in the summer of 2002, thanks to salty, hard-working veteran leadership and a group of young players large on talent and even larger in heart, only to be put back to bed a few hours later after an obvious handball call was missed; tomorrow is finally here.

That fateful summer in Korea was supposed to be the summer soccer in America turned the corner. America was going to be the place to be in the Aughts, and soccer and the Yanks National team was going to be the sport and team to see. But this is also a country where the weight of expectation was too great, where the young players weren’t ready to deliver, and failure in the summer of 2006 was more evidence to the talking heads with influence that soccer would never arrive. For those of us who believed, coverage on talk shows like PTI in the wake of the crushing defeat to Ghana rattled the foundations of our convictions. Would soccer ever arrive? To them, the game, our team, was a joke.

And yet as President Reagan so often reminded us—we are a country that is resilient, proud, and it is a mistake to underestimate the collective, stick-to-it attitude and ingenuity of a group of Americans with a dream. So we didn’t listen to the talking heads and the shock jocks. We didn’t listen when they made fun of those of us writing about the game, spending weekend afternoons at soccer pubs watching our favorite clubs in England and the taking note of the increasing sense not just of American presence there, but of belonging. We didn’t listen when they called the game too boring, too low-scoring, melodramatic or over-theatrical. We understood the cultural obstacles, understood the psyche of the cynic. This understanding of the cynic became instrumental to our fight to promote the game we love, to keep soccer in the cultural discourse on sport in the United States. We didn’t care that we were labeled misfits, social outcasts, kids and adults who didn’t understand football or chose to love soccer to be part of a counter-culture, or to relieve lingering internal resentment towards the high-school quarterback. We weathered the shock-jock abuse, the Jim Romes, (who literally accused us of being addicted to internet porn) the Colin Cowherds calling us classically nerdy “white-boy” names—Ethan and Colin and Nick.

More than weathering the abuse, we sought to understand it. After all, most of us weren’t what they said we were. We were just fans of a game that was perceived as different, that didn’t fit in with the mainstream cultural narrative that demanded Lady Gaga, Avatar, Toby Keith and 24 from its entertainers and high scores, collisions, slam dunk contests and of course, with football and baseball, the sense of jingoistic pride that accompanies having invented the game from its sport.. Rather than being defensive, we listened.

On a more analytical level, we understood that beyond the allegations that the game was dull, the increasingly data-driven lifestyles led by Americans made the game difficult to grasp. American sport has been revolutionized by characters like Billy Beane, the increasingly scientific NFL Combine, and concepts such as “Money Ball” and “Sabermetrics.” While there have been movements to make the scientific evaluation of soccer more important in shaping the game, these efforts have terminally fallen short. Soccer was hard to understand for the most intelligent of American sports fans because culturally, they had no controlled variable, such as a batter standing at home plate, to grasp onto. There was even for the most part a rejection of very basic statistics in the game (like batting averages in baseball), and even the addition of computer programs like Opta that attempted to measure player efficiency in terms of “distance covered” or “passing success rates” have yet to completely influence the game. Americans find this critical rejection of data-driven analysis hard to fathom—and it became another strike against soccer. So we listened to this complaint as well. We listened and we responded that the anarchy of the game, the fact that organization can forestall brilliance (Like Inter against Barca this year in the Champions League), that was what made the game so beautiful.

In a country where the disappointments of 2006 had again moved the game to the periphery of the mainstream narrative on sport, we listened and we were rewarded. Maybe it was better that so much of the growth happened in the shadows. Maybe it was a good thing, not a shame that as more and more of the young players who were part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 2010 developmental dream made the move to European leagues and clubs at the highest level, very few at home paid much mind or attention. Maybe the fact that in the domestic league, few noticed the small but growing crowds, the few but increasing in number clubs, the new soccer-only facilities built for them— that was a good thing. The league could continue developing young, promising American talent below the radar screen, and maybe this was critical to the quiet growth, a slow crescendo to the storm that has been this year’s unprecedented coverage.

Indeed, by the time an icon arrived, in the form of David Beckham, in 2008, the quality in the league was earning worldwide respect—and it became trendy to at least be conversational about MLS in this country, even if you weren’t paying too much attention.

Indeed, in a country where revolution is so often loud, where protest and dissent have become multi-million dollar industries, and to some extent contributing sources to an ever-growing national polarization, soccer, like it has always been was different. The revolution was not televised.

While so few were watching, quietly the game grew, from a shot in Trinidad to a two year camp of mostly college kids determined to compete. From hosting a World Cup to hoisting a Women’s World Cup. From abject failure in French seclusion to heart-wrenching, bittersweet triumphs in Asia four years later. From a small league with a developmental dream to an American’s ruthless finish against an Italian giant, from Univision and Italian language television to Rupert Murdoch’s soccer-only network, from 5:00AM wake-up calls to weekend national television for a European final to round-the-clock coverage live at the World Cup, continents away. Quietly we’ve reached this point on the backs of soccer moms, dedicated parents, a generation of players large on talent and larger in the heart, a true # 10, and immigrant coaches and a brilliant soccer federation with a dream.

The Revolution has not been televised. But today, in this country, the Revolution will be televised. The Americans will play the most-watched, most-important game in the history of this country. The Revolution will be televised.

Tomorrow arrives today.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com.

Neil W. Blackmon