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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Lost Opportunity for US Soccer on Sunday Night

About 24 million people watched the game, three quarters on ESPN and one quarter on Univision.  A huge draw by any standard, one which many other sports would envy.  Had the U.S. held on to defeat Portugal, it would have been a big night for U.S. soccer and for soccer in the U.S.

As to the former, well, the knock on the national team is that we're a nation of midfielders, we haven't really developed a good striker, only three players are world class (Howard, Bradley, Dempsey -- Guzan probably is and Altidore could have been but for his woeful year at Sunderland in the EPL) and that where would the fifth largest country in the world be without foreign-born children of U.S. servicemen?  Winning its first two games in the group stage for the first time would have told the country that not only does the U.S. play with resolve, it actually can win games and is a different program from years past.

As to the latter, well, soccer has more than begun to get traction.  Forget about all the youth leagues (which are important but which are a given), but remember that the English Premier League had huge TV exposure in the U.S., that there is a growing Latino population and that EA Sports FIFA soccer game is one of the most popular in the world and fun to play (I love manager mode).  All of these factors point to the growing importance of soccer (and more and more boys aren't playing baseball because (i) you stand around for two and a half hours for ten minutes of action (i.e., the "it's boring" argument), (ii) dads act like wannabe Billy Martins and Earl Weavers and ruin it for everyone else, (iii) going to an MLB game is very expensive and the games take way too long because of too many commercials between half innings, pitcher's taking forever to throw and batters stepping out of the box too frequently or (iv) a combination of all of the above.  Had the U.S. won against Portugal and guaranteed itself easy entry in the Knockout Round, well, that would have completed a pretty picture for those who want soccer to take off in the U.S.

But, alas, U.S. soccer (or U.S. Soccer) has elected to go the difficult route.  Ghana and Portugal will battle, perhaps draw, it's hard to tell, but it's hard to figure that the Germans (who still have something to play for) will bench their regulars and then give the U.S. an easy game.  (And even if Germany benched its regulars, many of its back-ups are better than the U.S.'s starters).  Beat or draw Germany and the U.S. goes through, but that's a tall task against a team that's been favored to go to the semifinals.

All that said, the U.S. is far away from where it needs to be.  Until the country has between 50 and 100 of its top players playing in major leagues around the world, starting, and for good teams at that in some instances, the U.S. will not be a serious contender to win the World Cup.  Look at the teams that have excelled and you'll learn that their players are stars where they play.  Tim Howard is among the top ten goalies in the world, and Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are good, but there are at least ten countries whose top three players are better than that troika.  Atop that, right now the best athletes in the U.S. are not playing soccer -- they still play football, basketball and baseball.  Once you get the Chris Pauls and Dwayne Wades of the world to play soccer, well, then you'll have stars and superstars.  But, until then, you'll have the perpetual underdog that plays with resolve but that just doesn't have the talent to beat star-laden teams from Latin America or Western Europe.

Still, a win on Sunday night would have been a big boost -- and it would have said that not only was soccer taking off, it hit a different plateau, one from which U.S. Soccer could launch its next great efforts to build a better brand, a bigger following and, most importantly, a more deeply rooted soccer culture in the U.S.  On many fronts, the draw against Portugal was a lost opportunity.


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