Again with the Beckham debacle. I'd really prefer to go against the grain, talk about something else, and just move on with the business of soccer in this country. But Beckham's time with the Galaxy, be it finished or not, makes his ongoing saga a relevant American soccer story.

This time, it's a throw away quote taken from an interview in which Becks supposedly declared his desire to stay with Milan (link), that has my thinking wheels turning.

"Former England captain Becks, 33, also told of his 'frustration' at playing for LA Galaxy in a league that was '10 years behind” European standards.'

Did you catch that part about MLS being "10 years behind" European standards? That's the part that's got me all riled up: not because I think it's a incorrect statement, but because I think Signore Beckham may be giving our little league more credit that it might actually deserve.

I know ten years is a long time. A lot can happen in ten years. Technology, language, fashion, music, etc. all change drastically over the course of a decade's time. Ten years ago, the height of cool was a pager on vibrate and a ride with the windows down and "My Name Is" blasting from the speakers. Yes, ten years can be a very long time.

But is it really? Is it a long time when what we are talking about is a league with thirteen years of competition being compared to history-rich institutions like Serie A, La Liga, and the EPL? If Beckham meant what he said, and he truly believes that MLS is only ten years behind Europe, then let me be the first to say "bravo" to Mr. Garber and company. The litany of handicaps that hold MLS back from competing financially, even with leagues in this corner of the world, make the "10 years behind" comment a compliment rather than a slight. While those of us invested in American soccer and the success of our domestic league are less concerned about comparisons than we are with achievements on the field and the relative health of the game, it would be incorrect to say that we don't care. We do, we just don't believe it's as important an issue as some (Euro snob alert).

Be it compliment or contempt, the soundness of Beckham's assessment of MLS is worth analyzing. There are no hard statistics that will prove or disprove it; there is no tangible, concrete, beyond-a-doubt reasoning that would hold up to any logical scrutiny. The statement belongs to the unprovable, and is a subjective appraisal that is simply one man's opinion. But what if we extrapolate Beckham's comment to it's logical end? Will MLS, come 2019, be on par with the top-flight European football of today? Again, impossible to know. It's difficult for me to believe, however, that Major League Soccer and the sport in the United States will have made enough progress, both in youth development and through bringing in foreign players, to resemble what we see today in the world's most competitive leagues. The uphill battle to garner public attention will continue to hamstring large scale quality improvement efforts for the foreseeable future.

Ten years in the sports world is barely enough to make a career. Very little changes in the way a game is played over the course of that time, and the quality of talent shifts only slightly with better scouting and improved development programs. It can take much longer to significantly impact the product on the field. Soccer's place in the United States sports hierarchy may change for the better in the next ten years, but unless significant funds are suddenly available for teams to drastically increase their payrolls, scouting networks, and youth programs, the quality of play will remain relatively stagnant. While I hope MLS budgets will double or triple (or more) by 2019, I can't see the type of money necessary to bring MLS 2019 to the level of Serie A 2009 just falling out of the sky.

That's not to say it's impossible. Far from it actually. A couple of proverbial dominoes falling in favor of soccer in America could change everything, and make Beckham's statement a potentially prophetic one. If MLS reaches standards in ten years that can even remotely compare to those in the European leagues in which David Beckham has plied his trade, then I'm excited for the future. Whether you believe Beckham was being harsh, politely lenient, or brutally honest, we should take his comments as evidence that MLS is moving in the right direction.

Just as a sidebar, I think it's worth mentioning that Beckham rarely misspeaks, or says something he has not thought over carefully; this means that he probably believed the "10 years behind" comment to be a compliment to MLS.

What's In a Name? or I Hate "MLS"

Saturday, January 31, 2009 | View Comments

I hate Major League Soccer; and no, I haven't gone Euro snob. I don't hate the league itself, or the players in it, or the quality of play they provide. I don't hate the financial restrictions (although they frustrate the hell out of me) or the stadium issues, and I don't hate the plastic grass or the draft that doesn't fit the sport. It's not even the dodgy marketing decisions the league makes, or the hokey way it sometimes goes about its business; no, I tolerate all of those things. What I hate, and always have, is the name. Major. League. Soccer. Ugh.

Let's not even go near the "soccer v. football" discussion; that's a topic for another time. The name of the game, at least in this country, is soccer. Attempting to appropriate the term "football" from the American sport that bears that name would have been folly; soccer would have suffered from a tsunami of backlash a thousand times greater that the wave of disdain and indifference it came to receive.

But why "Major League Soccer"? If the founding fathers of MLS were going to choose a name derivative of that of another American sports league, why not "National Soccer League"? Or "National Soccer Association"? By forcing the "major" designation on the new league, the organizers simply reminded a skeptical American audience that the league was, in fact, far from "major". Perception at the time of its launch turned the term "major league", as it was being applied to soccer, into an ironic joke that American sports fans were more than willing to point out.

For thirteen years MLS has been burdened by a name that smacks of bad 90's marketing. Unfortunately, the decision to start from scratch and reboot professional soccer in America occurred in the era of pastel colored uniforms and expansion teams with poorly chosen nicknames; the label "Major League Soccer" seems just another example of the poor foresight endemic of the period. In 1993, when the USSF chose the proposal that eventually led to MLS, two other competing proposals were submitted: one from the APSL (American Professional Soccer League, which became the A-League), and one from "League One America". While the business model suggested by League One America obviously fell short, we have to give them credit for the name; how different might the perception of our professional league be, if instead of Major League Soccer, it was called "League One America"?

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe the name doesn't matter. Maybe all of those people out there that believe soccer to be a second-rate sport with not enough scoring would still feel that way if the league was called something else. Maybe the difference would be negligible, and only a few would be more intrigued by a competition named something like "League One America". Maybe some would see it as pretentious, and everything would wash out, with no net gain or loss. Maybe I'm wasting my time, writing about something no one else cares (or thinks) about anymore. Maybe I should just go back to worrying about things like salary caps and designated players.

What is in a name? Does it truly matter? Am I the only one questioning how the name of something might effect how it's perceived? If we conducted a poll of one thousand Americans on their thoughts about the name "Major League Soccer", what would the results show? I'd be willing to be that they wouldn't be pretty.

I suggest a change. Give the league a new name, and in the process, a new image. It doesn't seem to me that "Major League Soccer" has so much market penetration that it can't justifiably be thrown on the scrap heap; why hang on to something simply for the sake of holding on? Why not admit a mistake was made and attempt to correct it? A rebranding of the league itself should do no harm to the clubs, and the hype surrounding the announcement of a new league name and logo (I hate that thing, too) would be an easy way to gain exposure. For me, the pros far outweigh the cons.

Hopefully, one day in the not-so-distant future, MLS will wake up and take note of these problems. A name seems a small thing, a thing unlikely to hold the league back. But the impact of these small things is often underestimated, and can derail efforts that are seemingly strong in every other area. Americans like their sports to have a feeling of gravity, an aura of importance that belies their actual place in the grand scheme of life. The name "Major League Soccer" doesn't have that gravity. Fear of change, or a hesitance to make a change, is no excuse for allowing a poorly perceived moniker to endure. Until Major League Soccer recognizes the importance of this small thing, they may always be minor league.

So what should the new name be in this imaginary world of mine where this scenario can actually happen? Toronto ruins "League One America" of course, and "League One North America" is okay, but seems a little clunky. Any ideas?

Big News for MFUSA

Thursday, January 29, 2009 | View Comments
I hate to push my last post down the page, but I just had to mention some big news for me and MFUSA:, in partnership with Champions Soccer Radio Network, has picked up my top ten piece on the USA-Mexico rivalry. Even if you've already read it, go check it out.

USA v Mexico greatest rivalry in Sports

Commenting there is strongly encouraged.

If you haven't already heard, the Mexican national team is going through a bit of a rough patch right now. El Tri's play has left something to be desired recently (at least for Mexico supporters), and the situation has only been exacerbated by the Mexican press and their usual antics. Mexico lost to Sweden 1-0 in Oakland last night, a performance lacking in almost every quality that will be needed for El Tri to beat the Americans in Columbus on February 11th. The Mexican press, as well as a few players, were already circling like vultures in response to Sven-Goran Eriksson's use of naturalized players, an apparent no-no despite the team's lackluster form. Sven's side has done themselves no favors with the Sweden loss, and the temperature of Sven's seat is quickly reaching volcanic proportions.

Mexico, for as long as the United States has been a relevant footballing nation, has been the big bad wolf of the CONCACAF region. They've been the gold standard, the torch-bearer, the one nation in our little corner of the globe that held the rest of the world's respect when it came to the beautiful game. Whether or not this respect was built on reputation more than results is of little importance; Mexicans are passionate about their futbol, a trait the U.S. still lacks, and a passionate populace goes a long way towards garnering esteem around the world. Mexico, if you ask one of their fans, is the only true footballing nation in North America.

So here's the rub all for you Uncle-Sam-costume-wearing, Red-white-and-blue-flag-waving, U-S-A-chanting, Mexico-is-the-enemy die-hards out there: Mexico being bad is not good for American soccer.

As an American fan of the USMNT, this should be a time of great joy, right? The instinct to to revel in the pain of a rival is deep rooted in the sports fans' makeup. I'm sure Ohio State fans aren't losing any sleep over Michigan's fall from grace, for example, and Mexico's ills are the type of thing that should cause great glee among the American faithful. In soccer circles, the hate between the two nations runs deep, bred by the Mexicans' superior attitude, the United States long climb to respectability, and the two-headed-monster nature of the CONCACAF region. If Mexico falls off, it leaves the USA as the region's undisputed soccer power; it calls for a celebration, right?


Dead wrong.

You couldn't be more wrong.

Every comic book fan knows that a hero needs a villain: a bad to his good, a yin to his yang, an evil genius who will bring out the hero's best, pushing him to reach his full potential. Mexico, for lack of a better analogy, is the villain to the United States' hero. The development of soccer in the U.S. has a long way to go, and Mexico's influence on that development should not be underestimated. The Mexicans have provided American soccer, both on the club and international level, with a goal at which to aim, a level to reach that would put the United States on the world football map. If Mexico's decline continues unabated (which I don't believe it will), American soccer will be left in a position that does it no good; that of the complacent front runner.

Perhaps even more important than the Mexicans' role as the Americans' pace setter is their role in popularizing the game here. Rivalry garners attention in any sport, and soccer is no different. The Yankees and Red Sox seem to dominate coverage of baseball, and for a very good reason. Even those with no rooting interest in either team tune in when the two are playing because of the intensity the matchup possesses. USA-Mexico is the type of rivalry that can slowly help turn the tide of American indifference to soccer, simply by continuing at its current degree of fierceness. I'm often frustrated at the lack of attention USA-Mexico gets from the mainstream sports media, but even without a sustained push by ESPN or others, the rivalry remains a staple of the American soccer effort. If what has become the biggest soccer match on the North American continent, every time it is played, devolves into a one-sided affair dominated by the Americans, the sport here will certainly suffer for it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm certainly hoping for a decisive American victory in two weeks time, and the bigger the thrashing, the better. And when the return match hits Azteca, and 100,000 Mexicans are calling for American scalps, I'll be pulling for that elusive away victory we American fans so desperately want. But in the back of my mind, a nagging thought will be pecking away at my consciousness. I'll be thinking about how the USA needs Mexico like Batman needs the Joker and the Red Sox need the Yankees, and I'll know, that for the good of the game in America, Mexico must be once again be good.

A few out of place notes that I couldn't work into the flow of the piece:

1. I know that Mexico isn't completely falling apart; this piece is more of a "what-if" than a discussion of actual fact.

2. I mention the club aspect of Mexico's influence only briefly, so I wanted to make it clear that I'm aware of the FMF's superiority to MLS. I hold no illusions about the current quality of MLS, so the role of the Mexican league as a catalyst for improvement has certainly not waned.

USA-Mexico: Top Ten

Thursday, January 29, 2009 | View Comments
USA-Mexico is less than two weeks away, and I'm starting to get excited. In an effort to keep that excitement from exploding all over the place, I've decided to do the first ever MFUSA Top Ten.

Top ten lists around the web tend to be hack and wildly overdone, but there's a reason they are so popular: people love them. With that in mind, I'm going to ease the my mental load and do something quick and light.

So here, for your enjoyment, are the top ten reasons the USA-Mexico rivalry is the greatest current rivalry in sports:

10. Language Barrier

Like it or not, the language barrier plays a large part in increasing the intensity of this rivalry. Things are always a little testier when you can't tell what the other guys is saying about you; this applies to both the fans and the press. Americans despise the arrogance of the Mexican soccer supporters; Mexican fans despise the upstart nature of the Americans, who they see as playing "their" game, and each is paranoid about what the other is saying in a language they (mostly) don't understand. USA-Mexico is the only rivalry in North American sports for which language is a factor.

Bonus language item for American fans: The Donovan-speaks-Spanish factor has to be galling to the Mexican supporters.

9. Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Any great rivalry must take place often to reach rivalry status, and the USA-Mexico rivalry certainly benefits from the regularity of their meetings. Regardless of what other games might be on the horizon, fans on both sides circle their meeting against the other as soon as the schedule is released. With the contempt comes pining; supporters of each team would grudgingly admit that a long period without a USA-Mexico match is a boring one. A rivalry is truly great when anticipation for the next match begins as soon as the last has ended.

8. Player "Poaching"

The relationship between Mexico and the U.S., from a political standpoint, is a unique one. Millions of Mexicans have come to this country for the opportunities it provides while still remaining loyal to their homelands. This is never more evident than in the soccer world; several players have been on the radar of both the USMNT and the Mexican national team, and the decisions they've made have added to the rivalry.

7. Home Dominance

For me, this is an important aspect of the USA-Mexico face off each and every time the game is played; can the away side break the losing streak on the home side's soil? The long losing streak in the U.S. frustrates the Mexican fans, and the inability of the Americans to win in Azteca frustrates those on the U.S. side. The pressure to break the streak ratchets up the intensity to fantastic levels that Ohio State-Michigan could never hope to see.

6. High Stakes

Any and every USA-Mexico match has the rivalry boosting question of regional dominance at play; those games that are for a title (i.e. '07 Gold Cup) or to move on in a knockout tournament ('02 World Cup), or to move towards World Cup qualification are extra-special, and come with additional hype. The run up to La Guerra Fria is a perfect example of this, a game with so much buzz (among soccer fans anyway) that I think even ESPN will acknowledge it.

5. The Patriotism Factor

No other rivalry on the American sports scene contains the overt element of national pride. Flag waiving and patriotism are innate qualities present in both the American and Mexican people, and the head-to-head soccer rivalry is a perfect excuse to each group to show off their love for their country. Nationalism can be ugly when it becomes an excuse to persecute or oppress, but when it's part of an athletic endeavor it's only another factor that makes the competition fierce and results meaningful.

4. Recency Effect

The best rivalries, history nonwithstanding, are made through epic battles played out over a relatively short period of time, as close to the present as possible. This is why the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has taken on a new element in recent years; despite the term "rivalry" being applied before 2004, it took a historical Red Sox comeback and subsequent championship to bring the rivalry to it's current hype-worthy level. This is true for the USA-Mexico rivalry, as the USA's soccer renaissance over the last 20 years has finally given Mexico a competitor for regional dominance. Great games between the two with back and forth results have made each match up a must watch.

3. Memorable Moments

Every rivalry has moments that define it; USA-Mexico is no exception. Landon Donovan's first international goal, Blanco's Golden Goal in Mexico City, Rafa Marquez's red card in the '02 World Cup, Benny Feilhaber's wonder strike in the '07 Gold Cup; each adds something to the rivalry. Even momentary standoffs and hard tackles become part of the lore, riling up the supporters and intensifying the uneasy truce that exists from when one game ends until the next begins.

2. Melting Pot

Only in America can a rivalry between two different nations play itself out in front of "home" crowds for the visiting side. While it pains me to see American stadiums full of hysterical Mexican supporters, it's impossible to deny that this circumstance gives the match up another edge. As an American, it makes it all the sweeter when the match does take place in front of a true home crowd, with thousands of USA supporters dressed head to tow in red, white, and blue.

1. Enmity

Hate is a strong word, but in this case it might be the only accurate word. There has been talk of a grudging respect developing between the two sides in the most recent years, but the hatred the exists been the supporters of the two side may never wane. Exhibiting a actual dislike for one's competitors, which players on both sides have done, is the ultimate in rivalry fire-stoking. Fans take up the cause without hesitation, and "hatred" (as least as it relates to soccer) becomes the central them of every encounter. To say that the USA hates Mexico and vice-versa isn't a stretch by any means. Now that's what I call rivalry.

Okay, I'm officially exploding with anticipation.

I'll leave you with a video, just to whet your whistle:

State of the Blog

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 | View Comments
I was hoping to post again today, but a rough spell at work has me a little fried. Instead, I'm going to address a couple of things directly related to the blog itself, and leave the opinions and analysis for tomorrow (depending on what I come up with).

It seems I've hit the glass ceiling of the blogosphere; my readership hasn't increased as much as I would have hoped recently (in fact, I'm stagnating), despite my (and some others, you know who you are) best efforts. I'm going to ignore the possibility that what I do here simply isn't good enough to draw in the readers; I'm pretty sure I'm a decent writer, and I know there's plenty of nonsense out there in the Internet soccer world that I can more than hold my own against. It's certainly possible that things get a little too heavy around here for some people's taste, and since I'm not commenting on the news of the day as so many other do, it could be that I'm too niche.

With all that said, I'm putting it to you, my loyal readers (and there are a few of you, and thank you very much) to help me out. Surfing the web for most people is a passive experience, so I completely understand those of you who choose not to comment or have no interest in helping your friendly neighborhood blogger out. But on the off chance some of you have thoughts, or ideas, or concepts you think are worth discussing, and that you'd either like to see me add to my content or write about in the way I do, I'd like to ask you to send them my way. Consider this polite begging; I have no intention of closing up shop, and there might be a few things in the near future that will drastically increase my exposure (fingers crossed), but for the moment I need all the help I can get.

So step on up, I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to pick your own method; comments are always nice, but if you'd like to contact me in a more private manner, just shoot me an email.


jbdavis1 [at]

Two scenarios for your consideration:

Scenario A:
You are a young soccer player from a smallish European nation, a nation in the second or third tier of the UEFA pecking order. You came up through the youth system of a club not usually mentioned among the European powers, and you've logged some first team time. Your profile has steadily risen, and it's obvious you'll soon be ready for stiffer competition. Soon, foreign clubs come calling, and it's apparent your future lies in a top-tier league in one of the hotbeds of European football. How much are you worth?

Scenario B:
You are a young American soccer player. You're an oddity, a player drafted into MLS without ever playing college soccer. You make your debut at a very young age by American standards. You play for a time in the American league, your skills drawing the interest of the national team manager and foreign clubs despite your youth and inexperience. You star in youth World Cups, raising both your profile and your potential transfer price. How much are you worth?

If you valued yourself higher in scenario A than you did in scenario B, then you are no different than the rest of the footballing world. Americans are the blue light specials of European soccer, the cheap alternatives to higher priced options when times are tight or transfer kitties lacking. The highest profile American players often head off to European pastures for amounts that seem a pittance when compared to those paid for European and South American talent.

To move this comparison from the abstract to the concrete, let's assign to each scenario a player that matches its general circumstances. For scenario A, Stevan Jovetic; for scenario B, Josmer Altidore. Both are strikers, both are young (in fact, they are only six days apart in age), and both made big moves to a big club in a top four league in 2008.

If you don't know who Stevan Jovetic is (I sure didn't), here's a brief bio:

Jovetic was born in Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia on November 2, 1989. After rising in the youth system of Partizan Belgrade, he subsequently made forty-seven appearances for their senior side, scoring twelve times. After being named captain of his club in January 2008, Jovetic was sold to Serie-A side Fiorentina for a fee of 8 million euros in May 2008.

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to assume you know Jozy's story. I'll just review a few facts to frame his place in this discussion: Jozy's scoring record in MLS was 15 goals in 37 appearances, and Villareal paid MLS a record $10 million for him in June 2008. To better compare the fees paid, let's convert dollars to euros: the $10 million paid for Jozy was equal to just under 6.5 million Euros at the time of the transfer.

At first glance, the discrepancy in fee doesn't seem that large; keep in mind, however, that the 1.5 million euros represents an almost 20 percent "discount" to Villareal. Even allowing for the imperfect direct player comparison, it seems fair to call this discount significant. To further the point, the paths of each player continue to parallel, as Jovetic has made eight senior appearances (with no goals) for Fiorentina, and Alitdore has made six senior appearances (with one goal) for Villareal.

I could spend all day, and write thousands of words, giving example after example of the "American discount". American players with similar playing backgrounds, of (seemingly) similar abilities, and with similar potential to their European counterparts are sold or signed in Europe at rates often thousands or millions of euros (or pounds) less than those European players. European teams are learning quickly that the best place for bargains is the U.S.; Sacha Kljestan is just the most recent example of the phenomenon, as he's being linked to Celtic at a rate that seems too low for his burgeoning talent.

This situation is the result of several factors, not the least of which is our brief history of exporting players. A young league and still evolving world presence is just now allowing American players to sell themselves on the world market. The amount of players leaving the U.S. is increasing, but the number is still just a drop in the world talent pool. While many footballing nations send their young players abroad at rates disproportionate to their population, the United States is on the opposite end of the ratio. With a large population, we have yet to export a significant amount of quality players to European leagues, leaving the reputation of American players a incomplete one.

Those Americans that do transfer to major European leagues often do so at a later age than their European peers, a situation exacerbated by our youth-to-professional infrastructure. The reliance of MLS teams on the college soccer system has created a class of young players with no professional experience at an age when players from other nations who possess similar abilities are often entering their second, third or fourth season as pros. A European player in his early twenties is invariably more advanced as a professional than an American of equal age. This later development naturally leads to the American player transferring abroad at a price much lower than the market would bear for a European target.

The discount for American talent is likely to prevail as long as the development of players here follows a different timeline than the rest of the world, as long as the number of players moving overseas remaing relatively low, and as long as those players that have moved are not able to make significant contributions on a large scale. The repuation of the American player is likely to improve in the future; the growth of the game in the United States, as well as the continued effects of the domestic professional league, should lead to more and more Americans making their names on Europe's biggest stages. Until then, however, American soccer will continue to be European football's prefferred bargain shopping desitination.

A couple of videos, just to add visuals to the Jovetic-Altidore comparison:

Stevan Jovetic

Jozy Altidore

Beckham Saga Good for MLS

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | View Comments

Although it's been a subject of discussion for a few weeks already among American soccer fans, the Beckham-to-Milan saga has suddenly become big internationl news (or gossip, depending on your viewpoint).

The Mail Online reports on the saga then goes on to say Becks is playing with fire. Aside from representing another example of disrespect towards MLS (Beckham's deal is called a "shirt-selling contract"), the writer opines that Beckham risks angering Milan if he makes noise about a permanent move and then returns to L.A. No concern is shown for what the Galaxy may think about the situation, or whether or not the move would be good for them and the league.

The gossip machine has kicked in on the situation, declaring Posh unwilling to uproot the children from L.A., and reported that she has returned to Cali with bags in tow.

With all of this European media attention, and the celebrity gossip nonsense to boot, how could anyone argue that this isn't good for MLS? Even if the Galaxy and the league are secondary players in the minds of anyone interested in Beckham's potential transfer, they are still major players in one of the world's biggest football stories. The old saying states that any publicity is good publicity; even if that is not always the case, the negative opinions, slight, and perjorative language being thrown in MLS and the Galaxy's direction is nothing new and nothing substantial. The benefits of being on the tongue of every football fan, in the headlines of every media outlet, and even on the radar of the American mainstream media cannot be overstated for a young league like MLS.

From this end, Beckham staying in Milan probably benefits both the Galaxy and MLS in the long run, even if both are subjected to a barrage of articles and opinions on the "Beckham Experiment". Galaxy needs the potentially freed up the funds to rebuild their team, and MLS needs to move on with the business of building quality and depth throughout the league. I don't blame Bruce Arena for the comments he's made; whether or not he actually feels that way or if he's simply putting on a show is a moot point. He (and the Galaxy) have the right to feel hard done in the whole situation. Even if the interests of the team are better served by waving bye-bye to Becks, the Galaxy can't be seen as patsies, rolling over for the big boys from Italy.

If he goes, if the MLS is "forced" to sell Beckham because the man is holding out hope of playing for England in the 2010 World Cup and Fabio Capello is letting him know that Milan is better than L.A. if he wants a spot on the team, then the obvious question arises: Was the Beckham Experiment a success or a failure for MLS (and the greated cause of soccer in the U.S.)?

I have no doubts that the majority of articles on Beckham's stint in the States will be negative ones; from an on-the-field standpoint it certainly wasn't postive. But I will argue with anyone who says that Beckham's American adventure was not a success from a marketing and exposure standpoint. Singlehandedly, Beckham filled stadiums much too large for the current American soccer market with thousands of potential fans the league would more than likely never have reached. The long term effect of Beckham's time in America are impossible to know right now; but in a country where soccer struggles to get any attention, Beckham's presence drew more focus to the sport than it has had at any time in the last 30 years.

I know that I won't be upset if Beckham leaves for Milan. I know that MLS will go on, hopefully recommitting itself to its long term future by focusing on the overall product it puts on the field, and that I will be watching. There is not doubt, though, that Beckham raised the profile of MLS in the United States and abroad massively, the exact effect he was intended to have. The ability to sell him while he still has something to offer a world-class team is a feather in the cap of MLS, a bonus that was not foreseen at the outset of the experiment, and a win for the league that even the anti-soccer establishment and the anti-MLS soccer community cannot deny. Beckham is only player in the world capable of creating the kind of buzz that follows him; a buzz from which MLS is still benefiting. Now, Beckham has served his purpose. It's time to let him go, recoup some of the money used to bring him here, and move on to the next stage in the growth of professional soccer in America. But Beckham in America was an unqualified success, and you'll never convince this fan otherwise.

Wading Through the Flood

Monday, January 26, 2009 | View Comments
American sports fans are spoiled. We have more sports options than any other nation on the planet, and are never without an in-season product to follow at any point during the year. Football (both professional and collegiate), baseball, basketball (again, pro and college), hockey, soccer, etc., make up a sporting landscape that is more crowded in the U.S. than anywhere else. Leagues and teams are all vying for the attention of the public, while television, Internet, radio, and other media outlets bombard fans with discussion, rumors, opinion, and advertising. While it could be argued that the number of sports we have in the U.S. is an indication of a voracious appetite, and it's also true that a large population and a varied cultural makeup allow many sports to succeed, there may be a limit to how much one sports culture can support.

The "major sports" as they exist in the minds of most Americans are: football (the American kind), baseball, basketball, and hockey. While hockey's profile has taken a hit in the last few years, the sport still maintains its de facto place in the "major" quartet. Of the team sports currently played on a professional level in the United States, only soccer and lacrosse do not rate as "major" (I'm ignoring variants, i.e. arena football or indoor soccer). This is obviously not the case around the world, as soccer is most often the first (and sometimes only) sport that qualifies as "major". The sports landscape in the developed nations of Europe and South America most often consists of soccer (or football if you prefer) and perhaps one or two ancillary sports; no other nation in the world has four major professional leagues each playing a different sport that draws the attention of the populace on a large scale. Potential soccer fans in the U.S. are forced to wade through this flooded environment, and without direction (i.e. proper marketing) from soccer's leading entities, they simply never find their way to the game.

Americans, numerically, typically have more sports passions than their peers around the world. While fans in England, Italy, Germany, Brazil, etc. often support their soccer clubs with their full attention and effort, a majority of Americans split their passion between two or more teams in different sports. Media coverage of sports abroad is emblematic of this; while more attention is paid to soccer and soccer related news than in the U.S., the lack of a major secondary sport gives more room for individual sports that are given significantly less attention in the U.S. on a daily basis (i.e. tennis, golf, auto racing).

If we take a look at the sports news sites of a few major outlets abroad as compared those of a few American outlets, the differences in sports cultures are clear:


Sky Sports

I used BBC and Sky simply for language reasons, but both are good representations for European sport. Football (soccer) dominates as expected, cricket and rugby are represented but clearly secondary, and there is more of the individual sports than one would see from an American outlet (although I'll give BBC a bit of a pass with the Andy Murry headline; the Brits obsess over Murray and his tennis fortunes).

Let's contrast BBC and Sky to two major American outlets, ESPN and Sports Illustrated:


Sports Illustrated

*NOTE* Click for larger images if you cannot see them clearly

It is important to remember the timing of these snapshots, and to put their content in the seasonal context; if we keep this in mind and focus purely on the peripheral stories rather than the headlines, we see that no one sport receives a majority of the coverage. American football is king in the U.S., but less than a week before the biggest game on its calendar, it still does not dominate the websites of these major sports news outlets (or serve as the headline for Sports Illustrated). While the individual sports that the BBC and Sky featured so prominently are also present on the ESPN and SI pages, they are surrounded on all sides by news from the major American team sports. In addition to the professional team sports stories, major college team sports also make the cut for front page inclusion; another group of competitions that splits the attention of the American sports fan.

These snapshots give a small indication of the overall sports culture, how news is reported (i.e., which sports are given preeminence), and what may be important to the target audience of these media outlets; they do not, however, exhibit the depth of the flooded American sports landscape.

Here are the top ten professional sports leagues in the world by attendance (per Wikipedia):

(Sorry about the quality of the table)

Note that 4 of the top 5 are American leagues; even if we take the size of the population into account and focus on average attendance, it's clear that Americans support professional sports over the course of a season on a scale not matched anywhere else in the world. MLS, while attempting to become culturally relevant, is forced to compete with other popular professional leagues for the attention and commitment of the consumer. This situation is unique to the United States, and makes the task all the more difficult.

As fans, the love we hold for our sports teams creates very personal connections. Our emotions are tied to the success of our teams; our greatest personal moments are often those related to great victory or a glorious championship. These connections begin in our childhoods and grow into our adulthoods, becoming essential parts of our lives. While people from cultures around the world focus their passion on their football club and identify themselves soley with that club, Americans form bonds of the same intensity with American football teams, baseball teams, basketball teams, hockey teams, etc., all at the same time. Americans are masters of sports multi-tasking; we follow several sports at once, transition from season to season with ease and support multiple teams with our money and our passion on a scale most in the world could not imagine. We have the ultimate sports culture, but the question still remains: Is there room for soccer?

I think there is, but it's going to take a lot of work on the part of a lot of people. The American appetite for sports seems insatiable, and despite the economic situation, soccer can absolutely become one of the "major" sports. I know it's already "major" for me.

USA-Sweden Non-Recap Plus

Monday, January 26, 2009 | View Comments
No one needs a recap of the game from me, so that's not what this is; instead, I just wanted to hit on a couple of things (including USA-Sweden) from the weekend.

I mentioned that all I really cared about from the USA-Sweden game was a bit of magic from Sacha and something good from Cooper or Davies. We certainly got the magic from Sacha, but Cooper and Davies failed to produce. Brian Ching played very well, and I'm starting to turn the corner on him a bit. Ching's not flashy, and his age is a strike against him, but he consistenly does good things on the pitch that helps his team win. The play he made to set up Sacha for the last goal was very nice.

Speaking of Sacha, the subject of his potential transfer to Celtic is big news. The piece places Celtic among several other suitors, and indicates that the move may not be as inevitbale as all of the press (and Sacha's performance on Saturday) would seem to make it. In fact, Sacha's hat trick is already being mentioned as a reason the transfer won't go through. The feeling appears to be that Sacha's performance will lead MLS to up the asking price for the midfielder, putting him out of Celtic's range. This story (which says that Sacha is a Serbian immigrant: um, no) reports the current offer at just under 2 million pounds (as of today, that's about $2.8 million; there is no chance MLS and Chivas lets Sacha go for that little).

It appears that Kljestan may be the guy that we all expected Freddy to become for 2010; I just hope, if he does move to Scotland, that Sacha gets playing time. It would be a disaster if he ends up wasting away on the bench like Freddy has to this point.

USA-Sweden Recap Preview

Sunday, January 25, 2009 | View Comments
That title is a joke; of course I'm not going to preview my recap.

A recap is coming, bu I'm a little foggy this morning, the result of spending WAY too much time with my little brother last night. Once the fog clears, I hope to have something up about last night's game and a couple of thoughts on where things stand with the guys that played.

Til then.

Game Day

Saturday, January 24, 2009 | View Comments

To play Sweden.


Still, it's international soccer, and I'll definitely be watching. All I'm really hoping for is a little bit of magic out of Sacha, some flashes of brilliance out of Kenny or Charlie, and a decent enough showing overall to send me to bed happy tonight.

Not sure if I'm going to be able to spoon out any thoughts on anything else, but you never know. I always say that, then spit out something I didn't know was coming. If a topic strikes me as worth talking about today, I'll be back.

I did catch an article from Grahame Jones at the LA Times discussing the possibility that the entire 2010 World Cup team could be internationally based. I could probably get a couple thousand words out of the topic, but I want to think about the pros and cons a bit first.

Enjoy your soccer today, no matter what you're watching.

Now It's Time For a Breakdown

Saturday, January 24, 2009 | View Comments

As I'm sure you've heard, the apparently annual USA-Sweden friendly is tomorrow night in Carson. Bob Bradley has called in a young squad loaded with MLSers, players who aren't currently tied up with club obligations, while Lars Lagerback has chosen an equally youthful squad, also made up of player's from his country's domestic league.

With the start of the 2009 National Team schedule, and the first Mexico qualifier just around the corner, I thought this might be a good time to take a bit of a snapshot of the USMNT. Comparing the two B-squads set to do battle tomorrow could be a good way to analyze the quality of depth and the up-and-coming talent we have in our program, as compared to a currently-middling-yet-traditionally-strong European side.

Point of comparison: Current FIFA Ranking
USA: 22
Sweden: 31

While Sweden is ranked 9 spots behind the U.S. at the moment, the two countries have been around the same level for most of the last calendar year. At the time of the last meeting in January 2008, Sweden was ranked 24th and the U.S. 26th. It can be argued that the current disparity in ranking doesn't really do the Swedes justice: they play in the world's strongest federation, UEFA, and boast one of the world's top strikers on their full-strength squad (Zlatan Ibrahimovic). They've also been historically a much stronger side than the U.S., and had a much better showing at the 2006 World Cup (not difficult, I know).

Point of Comparison: Average Roster Age
USA: 26
Sweden: 25

Using whole numbers (the US Soccer site uses decimals; I'm not statistically savvy enough to break it down that way), I have the average age for the U.S. camp at 26. The two rosters compare favorably in age, with Sweden's average age being 25. Both rosters are made up of group of young players balanced out by some plus-30s (Brian Ching and Jon Busch on the USA side for example). The oldest player in the U.S. camp is Busch at 32; if we throw out keepers, the average American comes down a year to 25. Sweden has one teenager on their roster, Andreas Landgren at 19. The U.S. roster has no teenagers, with the youngest player being Robbie Rodgers at 21. The differences seems fairly negligible, as both teams are utilizing their younger domestically-based players for the match. While it's impossible to determine the depth and quality of the respective player pools simply by looking at the age of their rosters for this friendly, it does give me comfort the U.S. isn't working with a group of later bloomer/fringe national team players. Simply being able to put out a competitive (and some would say favored) team for this match without dipping into too many regulars or older players is a sign that we're catching up developmentally.

Point of Comparison: Domestic Leagues

There's really no way of fairly comparing the respective domestic leagues from which these teams are largely made up; Sweden's domestic league seems comparable to other Nordic leagues, which often poach young American (and MLS) talent, so any gap in quality would negligible. I believe both are more than likely good proving grounds for those players not yet ready to make the jump to higher profile leagues. In this area, it's probably fair to say that the U.S. is on equal footing with Sweden.

Both managers will be setting their starting lineups with the future in mind. They'll be looking to learn about their player pools, hoping to see something that will give them confidence that some of their young talent can contribute to qualifying campaigns in the coming months and (hopefully) the World Cup in 2010. Sweden's road to South Africa is considerably more difficult that that of the U.S., so Lagerback's task is in some ways more difficult than Bradley's. While Bradley can throw players into the game with an eye towards 2010, Lagerback must find players that can contribute significantly in 2009.

While no hard conclusions can be gleaned from any of this, it does give me solace that our program seems to be inline with Sweden's. Although not a world power, the Swedes occasionally make waves on the world and European stages, and can always be counted on to put up a strong fight. They occasionally produce players of pure class, something the U.S. has yet to do but certainly is capable of in the future. For the time being, and as long as we're moving in a positive direction and progressing at a good clip, I'm comfortable calling the Swedes our world footballing peers.

One more note before I turn in for the evening (whoa, is it really 12:30 in the morning?!):
The U.S. Under-18s won a four-team tourney in Australia (against some admittedly weak opposition) at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival. They tied Chile 1-1, thrashed China 14-0 (how is that even possible), and beat the host Aussies 5-0. Article here if you are interested.

The American Attention Span

Friday, January 23, 2009 | View Comments
I thought I had nothing to write about today, until I remembered to check the memo function on my phone: sure enough, I had a note about the American sports fan's attention span and how it relates to the beautiful game. Thus, we return to regularly scheduled programming after the earlier current event commetary.

America is a nation of sports fans entranced by games that are constantly stopping and starting; games that entail continuous play don't seem to be in our athletic DNA. Baseball is a game of pauses, with short bursts of action interspered among periods of inaction. The same goes for American football, where the average play lasts only a few seconds. Football uses a clock that continues to run even while no action is occuring; a unique situation that gives the illusion of somewhat continuous play. Basketball follows a slightly different pattern due to the nature of scoring in the game, and the periods of inaction are generally shorter, but regular stoppages are still a significant part of the sport. All of these most American of sports seem tailor-made to our commericial TV; timeouts and side changes give television networks ample opportunity to barrage us with ads.

I'm leaving hockey out of this argumet for a couple of reasons: 1. It's not as popular in the U.S. as the three I've mentioned, and 2. the whole ice thing makes it SO different that it doesn't fit the argument. That, and the whole mullett situation. Seriously, what's that all aboot?

Soccer doesn't fit this start-stop mold. The game, by its very nature, is meant to flow in a way that limits interruption. This major difference presents a fairly obvious question, the answer to which may give some insight into the average American's ability to appreciate the game. Are Americans so conditioned to sports with intermittent action that it makes it more difficult for the casual fan to appreciate soccer?

We've all heard the argument that soccer is "boring" and "slow". Detractors lament the lack of scoring, the long periods of "nothing happening", and the supposed "slow" pace of the game. Meanwhile, those same soccer detractors will spend 3 1/2 hours (as opposed to 2 hours for a soccer match) watching an American football game that contains constant interruption, often only slightly more scoring than the average soccer game (if you draw a direct parallel between a goal and a touchdown: the number of points awarded for TDs only makes it appear that there is significantly more scoring), and a pace that compares unfavorably to soccer over the course of the game no matter what criteria one uses. The argument simply does not fit, and despite the extent to which it has been spread by the anti-soccer propogandists, is easily answered at every turn.

"Anti-soccer propogandists"? Who do I think I am, Bill O'Reilly? I'm going to try not to make these notes a habit, but I just have to take a moment to let the nasty feeling fade away...okay, we're good. Back to the ridiculous theory.

I'm not denigrating American sports. As I've made clear before, forsaking another sport you love to follow soccer and soccer alone is not a program to which I subscribe. But it seems obvious to me that any anti-soccer argument that revolves around the pace of the game is so ridiculous it warrents drawing the comparison to our beloved American sports. The continuous nature of soccer seems to make the game seem even more foreign to Americans, and as a group we don't seem capable of adjusting our minds so as to appreciate the game properly.

All sports have a rhythm, a rhythm fans come to identify as a part of what makes their sports appealing. This is a kind of chicken-and-egg situation, one in which the rhythm of the game is viewed as a positive attribute because the fan is already consumed by their passion for said game. The games we've chosen (or been pushed) to follow and play are, for us, often beyond reproach. Perception is reality, and quite often that perception is based on an erroeous assumption (soccer is boring, football is great) that we've made based on what we've been told rather than what we've experienced.

It's often said that taking even the most stubborn hold out to a game can turn them into a fan. I've heard this statement made for various sports, but most often for those that survive the fringe, ones that most Americans refuse to consider following. Soccer and MLS certainly fall into this category, and I'm sure many people have been converted through this method (provided they agree to going to the game; most Americans are too stubborn to even do that). In a live setting, the flow of the game is much easier to adjust to; TV cameras simply don't allow for the depth of experience and detail that being in the stadium provides. Unfortunately, exposing enough Americans to live professional matches to make MLS a top tier sports league is an impossibility. For the time being, we'll just have to hope that the media works to do the game justice in the U.S.

This problem of rhythm, or intermittent play, or whatever you choose to call it, is certainly a oversimplification on my part. I'm not really sure how much of a role it plays in the American attitude towards soccer, but it seems to me that it may be working on a subconscious level for many sports fans. Americans have come to expect commericials during their sports, and an entire pop culture phenonmenon has grown up around the annual Super Bowl commericials. When a sport appears on the scene that has no natural pauses, that doesn't allow us to do the things to which we've become accustomed during games, how equipped is the sporting nation to deal with it? Because they refuse to deal with it, the detractors spin what is clearly a positive attribute of soccer into a negative, one to be used to continue the anti-soccer movement.

I wish the "anti-soccer" movement would organize; it would make it much easier to attack them head on. I'm guessing the head of any organization like that wouldn't be the brightest bulb: he (or she) might just cause enough of a backlash against his organization to give MLS some buzz. Like I've said, Americans don't like to be told what to do, so if an organization like that existed, it would probably be a postive for soccer rather than a negative. Ha!

What is Donovan Worth?

Thursday, January 22, 2009 | View Comments

$15 Million Man

We've all seen it by now; reports out of Germany have American (and Mexican) soccer's favorite whipping boy tearing it up in the run up to the second half of the Bundesliga season. Whether you put stock in friendlies or not, it's hard to see Landon not getting minutes while his form is so good.

I was thinking about Landon's German adventure today, and besides the glee I feel over his strong early showing, it occurred to me that MLS must already have a price in mind for when Bayern Munich inevitably come calling (I know it's not actually inevitable, but it is likely, so inevitable still works).

So, what exactly is Donovan's value?

There's really no precedent here; Altidore's $10 million transfer to Villareal doesn't work as a barometer because of Jozy's age and lack of a long term track record. There is certainly a premium placed on young players with potential like Jozy, a category in which Donovan doesn't fit. At 26 (soon to be 27), Landon's "developmental" years are behind him; in order to get full value, Bayern is almost obligated to play him.

I think all of us that are anxious for Donovan to succeed in Europe are hoping for a smooth transfer when his loan period is complete; if Donovan plays well, he can raise the reputation of American players almost single-handedly. MLS has to ride a fine line when negotiating with Bayern (or any other team), keeping their asking price to a reasonable level while at the same time avoiding rolling over simply because Donovan is A. American and B. a two time "failure" in Germany.

Bayern Munich is certain to have the upper hand at the negotiating table. Donovan has made it clear he's ready to leave MLS and take another shot at big-time European football, so to bring him back to the U.S. over a matter of a million dollars or so would be catastrophic to his psyche. While selling one of the league's marquee players surely wasn't on Major League Soccer's 2009 to-do list, the pressure to do so will be so immense that the league may have no choice.

As of now, there are no estimates on a potential transfer fee for Donovan. No one seems to know what value MLS might put on Donovan, and how much his performance will impact that price. I may be jumping the gun, as he's yet to play in any league or cup matches for Bayern, but the subject had to come up sometime.

If Altidore is worth $10 million (I know it doesn't really apply, but I'm going to use it anyway), and players like Craig Bellamy go for roughly $19 million (which we'll adjust down to $15 million due to the Man City premium), then why wouldn't Landon Donovan be worth at least $15 million himself?

I want to see Donovan go, I truly do. But I want the league to do right by itself by being smart and getting a solid return when they sell on their brightest star. $15 million, plus or minus a million, seems about right. Only time will tell.

As I'm on the record now, I guess I'll have to eat crow if he's either sold for less or stays at home because Bayern (or another club; it's a possibility) value him lower. Come back in March to see what happens!

Video of Landon's two goals from today's friendly against Mainz are already out there, floating in the American soccer Internet circles, but I thought I would post them anyway. What can I say, I like seeing them on my site.

Donovan's first goal:

Donovan's second goal:

*EDIT 1/24*
I've been pipped by Bill Archer at Big Soccer, although he doesn't make any predictions regarding LD's potential price.

With my recent posts on American attitudes still on my mind, with a Internet-connected PC at my fingertips, and with a tiny bit of hope in my heart, I set out today to find some real world examples of the type attitudes soccer in the U.S. must overcome.

The recent news of MLS Primetime Thursday's "cancellation" (the quotes are a nod to the league office) had me thinking that perhaps I could find some fairly fresh examples of the type of things American sports fans say about soccer on a regular basis. Sure enough, The Big Lead delivered the goods.

I've chosen to highlight a select few who embody those characteristics which I've highlighted recently. This is just a small sample, and if you want to read them all for yourself (they're practically an ad for the American public school system), here's the link.

Contestant number one, step right up!

sponge-worthy Says:

January 20th, 2009 at 1:37 pm
I think enough Americans like soccer, however I also believe Americans don't like crappy soccer. If ESPN had Premiership rights people would watch.

A fine example of Eurosnobbery (if we assume that sponge-worthy is American, which I am). MLS is "crappy soccer" according to our friend here, and Americans like the sport (despite the ratings) but are discerning enough to know MLS is an inferior product that should be ignored. I'm guessing Mr. Worthy never played soccer on a level above high school, so I'm not sure what his qualifications for slighting an entire league might be.

Hef Says:
January 20th, 2009 at 1:45 pm
There was an MLS Primetime Thursday that I wasn’t informed about?

The first joke at the expense of the league, a sarcastic shot that implies Primetime Thursday was so irrelevant Hef here had never heard of it. I'm slapping my knee right now, how about you?

jim Says:
January 20th, 2009 at 1:55 pm
There was an MLS Primetime Thursday that I wasn’t informed about?

A followup to Hef's joke, Jim here ramps up the mockery by declaring irrelevant the entire league, rather than just the Thurdsay broadcast. So hilarious, I've blown out my spleen. How about you?

OUMike Says:
January 20th, 2009 at 2:17 pm
Soccer sucks. I would much prefer an NHL post, a NASCAR post, or a tiddlywinks post.

The intelligence of "Soccer sucks" is certainly telling. OUMike follows that up with another joke, this time placing MLS below two fringe sports and "tiddlywinks". Unfortunately, I've blown out my spleen, so no chuckles for Mike.

modiggs12 Says:
January 20th, 2009 at 2:19 pm
The masses have spoken. Soccer is only significant every four years in the US.

Makblunt Says:
January 20th, 2009 at 2:41 pm
That’s a lie Mo. Soccer is never significant in th US. Like linking sites that no one will ever click, soccer is a big waste of time.

I've placed these two together for context. Modiggs give soccer a little credit, obviously believing the World Cup to be worthwhile. Makblunt quickly corrects him, throwing a typical American viewpoint ("Soccer is a waste of time") in to boot.

Those were the best of the bunch, and although it's just a small sample, I think those comments provide an telling insight into the general American sports fan. It may be even more telling that comments for an MLS story were highjacked by a discussion on NHL television ratings (see thread if you care about that at all).


Thursday, January 22, 2009 | View Comments
Call this a provisional part two of the previous post. I've had some additional thoughts that I wasn't able to work into that piece, and I'd like to get them out before they slide out of my head. I'm going for a much more informal feel on this one; I'd really love to do stream-of-consciousness, but there's a part of me that just won't let that happen. Hence, a few paragraphs, each touching a bit on an extension of concepts discussed in yesterday's post.

It seems to me that many Americans who take to soccer passionately often do so in a way that leads to the exclusion of other sports from their lives; soccer fans seem more apt than others to be fans of soccer and soccer only, either slowly losing interest in other sports over time, or choosing to consciously reject them due so some selected flaw (or justifying the rejection by comparing another sport to soccer, then declaring soccer superior). I have no statistical data to back up this observation, simply a general feeling I get from the soccer community (Internet version). On more than one occasion, I've heard Americans on soccer call-in shows extolling the virtues of the beautiful game while voicing a disdain for sports they likely grew up watching and playing. These choices are based on personal tastes, of course, and I'm not going to judge anyone who follows this path; I'm just concerned that these people make the game less palatable to the average American. I mentioned my belief that stubborn Americans are less likely to be receptive to soccer when they are "told" they should like it; Americans that have traded traditional sports for soccer are seen as the ultimate offenders, snobs who are forcing their game on "true" American sports fans. It's this type of exclusionary thinking on the part of soccer fans that results in a backlash from those American sport fans as well as from the mainstream sports media. A superior attitude about soccer emanating from fans of the sport creates a combative environment that feeds the competitive nature already latent in any sports fan, much less those who are already predisposed to hate the game. I myself have come to soccer after a lifetime of avidly following the mainstream American sports. Soccer is simply an addition for me, another passion I have made room for in my own daily sports routine. The game fits in nicely for me, and I've never felt as though I'm forsaking football or baseball, or felt the need to drop those sports in order to be a "good" soccer fan. The future of soccer rests on the ability of the sport to work it's way into millions of daily routines the way it has worked its way into mine; it's certainly possible this can happen, but it's made more difficult by those who want to use soccer an excuse to declare themselves culturally superior because they follow the game.

Here I am, back on Euro snobs. This is more of a practical thought about their effect, rather than the rant I threw up about them before. All vitriol aside, they do have a negative effect on efforts to get more Americans into the game.

The generational chain that bonds Americans (and others around the world) to their chosen national sports is so strongly related to our cultural identity that the two often interweave. Seminal moments in the history of the sports we collectively follow enter popular culture in a way that is disproportionate to their actual import; the death of a President is no more remembered than a monumental sports upset. I think it's the shadow of this collective history that has created the disconnect between youth player and fan (not to mention professional player) that so frustrates adherents of the game in the U.S. Estimates of American youth participation in soccer range anywhere from 4 million to 20 million; regardless of the actual number, this group represents a soccer resource few nations in the world posses. Despite this resource, professional soccer has yet to gain a significant audience in the U.S., and the number of quality professionals we produce remains well below what one would expect. In my mind, the problem is a simple one: soccer is not a sport American fathers envision their sons playing on a professional level. These fathers view the recreational soccer played by their children as distinct from other more American sports because they ignore its professional (and scholarship) possibilities, which did not exist during their own childhoods. The sport is instead seen as a diversion, a healthy activity that keeps children occupied while instilling in them the importance of teamwork. When the dream of becoming a professional athlete ends for an American male, those men transfer those dreams to their children. As soccer fans, our obvious frustration stems from the fact that this transfer almost never involves soccer. Instead, American fathers push their sons towards sports like football, baseball and basketball, sports with clear and established paths in the U.S. from amateur to professional. As these kids enter their teen years, years they spend playing other sports in place of soccer, the influence of the game, and the potential passion they may have had for it, disappears.

I told you I had more on my mind. Hope all of that made sense. There may be more coming, as I still haven't really addressed the issue of our overcrowded sports landscape. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them: my brain is threatening to overload on these issues.

Soccer's uphill battle in the U.S. is acknowledged by almost every observer, both by those who support, play, or watch the sport, and by those who have no desire to see it succeed in the American sports landscape. That uphill battle seems all the more daunting when we step back and take a look at that which has conspired to make up our American sports identity.

The sport Americans call "soccer" is the world's most ubiquitous game. It's played in every corner of the globe, by kids from countries that are economic super powers on pristine pitches under the watchful eye of highly paid coaches, as well as by kids from third-world nations suffering through disease and civil war on dirt streets with makeshift balls made from garbage. The sport's reach is unlike that of any other singular creation of man, thanks to British colonialism and the relative simplicity of the game. Americans, however, seem immune to the obsession that so clearly infects the rest of the world. We set ourselves apart, not only because of our influence and power, but because of our "independence", born from two centuries of cultivating an innate desire to "lead" rather than to "follow".

Americans see soccer as an intruder, a foreign game played by foreigners with foreign names in countries we see as "inferior" to our own. While this superior feeling has had political ramifications through the decades, its shadow has also been cast across our efforts to play the world's game. Early efforts to play soccer on a widespread professional level in the U.S. was met with some early success, but ultimately failed due to competition from "native" sports. That shadow remains to this day, strengthened by generations of Americans passing their sporting passions from parent to child, the makeup of which rarely includes soccer.

Football and baseball benefit from a deep-seated root system which can be traced through the years back to the beginnings of what is viewed as the ideal American upbringing. While the world went mad over FA Cups, Scudettos, and World Cups, we focused inward on home-grown sports like football, where schoolboy participation became the essence of American adolescence. The quarterback, not the striker, sits at the top of our social food chain, and a whole subset of American life was created through the high school version of the game. Male and female ideals came to be embodied by that most visible of football players and the girls that rooted them on, the cheerleaders. Baseball retains its place as "America's Pastime" through an almost mystical connection the followers of the game seem to have with it. The romance that the English transferred to soccer went in this country instead to baseball. These long histories are the backbone of each sport's prominence in the cultural lives of their followers. Soccer in America is faced with the daunting task of overcoming or adding to this history, while attempting to place itself alongside those passions already so deeply entrenched.

Basic xenophobia seems almost too obvious a reason for the reluctance of Americans to embrace soccer, but it is certainly the essence of that resistance. The common stated reasons for ignoring soccer, like "not enough scoring" or "it's boring" are just masks, behind which we hide our xenophobia. As a people, Americans are hard-pressed to admit that something from another part of the world could be worthwhile, unless it is presented in a palatable package that minimizes its foreignness and makes it seem almost American. Even then, we might resist that which we see as forced upon us, either because those doing the forcing we deem less-American than ourselves, or because our mistrust of that which is foreign clouds our ability to see the benefits of acceptance.

In a world where political-correctness and acceptance of others is now so highly prized, it would seem there should be an opening in the closed American sports culture, a narrow gap through which soccer could make inroads. As of now, this opening has yet to appear. The American sports media continues to make only cursory efforts to recognize the game (both domestically and internationally), while some elements of said media continue to voice an outright disdain for the sport. These actions embolden those for whom soccer is a whipping boy, and validates those who choose to ignore it.

With a spotty history that was never able to significantly impact the American consciousness, soccer continues to remain on the periphery, rejected by those who see it as either a threat or an annoyance. It seems some choose to reject soccer simply as a way to reassert their "American-ness" by declaring its inferiority to a more established sport (be it football, baseball, basketball, etc.), or by dismissing it as the pastime of bland suburban youth whose participation is seen as evidence of soccer's irrelevance. While decidedly irrational, the general attitude of the American sports fan (often embodied by the American sports writer) is a reality that soccer-loving Americans and those from abroad who wish the see the sport succeed must face. Without a concerted and wholly united effort to smash through xenophobic barriers backed up by a soccer-less history, the sport will always remain on the edge, a funny foreign sport played by men in shorts on fields most American see as more suited to American football.

Soccer's place in the pecking order of American sports is never more clear than when discussing the U.S. defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup. Despite occurring thirty years before Lake Placid, the U.S. upset of England is given a name derivative of the U.S. hockey team's shocking win: "The Miracle on Grass". That annoys me to no end.

Rough Day

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 | View Comments
I'm having a rough day in a couple of different ways today, so I'm going to ramble a bit with no real regard for form or structure.

Apparently news is not my thing, so I'm going to be leaving to the professionals from now on.

Instead, I'm going to return to my roots here, and knock around a few issues that remain stuck on my mind.

1. What would Beckham and Donovan staying in Europe mean for the league?

Beckham-mania brought mainstream pub and put fannies in the seats, but never seemed to give soccer the push that some hoped for; I get the feeling that members of the soccer Illuminati view the whole experiment with a jaded eye, and wouldn't shed any tears if David and Posh stayed in Milan. Although attention waned and he may not be able to put 60k in the seats anymore, the postives far outweigh the negatives for a Beckham return (at least for the league; the Galaxy themselves are another story).

Donovan's loan and potential transfer is another beast altogeher. Landon is certainly taken for granted (or hated) in MLS, so the effect his departure may have could be negligible. Donovan certainly rasied the profile of the leage as the best American player, but I don't think it's necessary for him to play in MLS for the league to benefit. A strong showing in Germany can raise the profile of the league abroad much more than another 20 goal season in a Galaxy uniform can.

Beckham should stay, Donovan should go; the league will lose more if Beckham stays in Milan than if Donovan remains in Munich.

2. Will ESPN push USA-Mexico?

I have yet to see any ads pushing the game, and ESPN will do nothing until after the Super Bowl. It seems they are too busy pushing a ridiculous time-filling concept called "The Mount Rushmore of Sports". We've heard that the game will be shown on ESPN2 in HD, and while that's a step up from the usual ESPN Classic treatment, the lack of buzz from the network itself for the game is making me angry. I realize that the king of American sports is closing in on its biggest game, but ESPN has been known to show ads for events a month in advance, and we're well within that window for February 11th.

3. Are American soccer fans obligated to support WPS?

I don't think it makes me a bad person that I don't care at all about WPS. I'm guessing I'm not alone, but it seems that a lot of people out there are giving the new league attention. Maybe it's the lull between the MLS draft and the first preseason action; maybe it's a sense of obligation because the women's national team has had so much success. Either way, I can't drum up fake enthusiasm, and I might even "yech" a little every time an ad for the league appears on FSC.

4. What does the players' union plan for the upcoming CBA negotiations?

I don't know why, but my gut wants the players to make a firm stand and squeeze a little out of the league. I'm not sure how much money there will be to go around, but things can't stay the way they are if MLS wants to be taken seriously. I may to do some research, but I'm curious if the contract ownership situation will stay the same for the foreseeable future (I'm sure the league would fight tooth and nail to keep contract control).

Speaking of USA-Mexico, I would love to hear some Nats chirp back at those Mexican players who have recently taken shots at the U.S.

No more, as I've tapped myself out after a shameful oversight this morning.

Expansion Mania

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 | View Comments
Expansion talk seems the be the pastime du jour around the internet soccer community, and I certainly don't want to be left out. I know I've touched briefly on the current race, and linked to a few things regarding the front runners and dropouts. Instead of slogging across covered ground, I thought I'd look more towards the overall MLS expansion plans, goals, and policies.

MLS is scheduled to announce two new franchises, both to begin play in the 2011 season. This follows rapid expansion over of the last four years, with Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA coming into the league in 2005, TFC in 2007, the revived San Jose Earthquakes in 2008, and Seattle Sounders FC this coming season. It is the stated goal of the league to expand to 18 teams by 2011, but it is not clear if the league intends to stop at 18 teams.

The recent economic downturn has created a dichotomy between those who wish to see the league grow (and do so rapidly) and the actual ability of potential ownership groups to create strong expansion bids. Even those who seem to have all the necessary parts in place, as in St. Louis (rich soccer history and a stadium project approved) and in Montreal (strong USL team with stadium easily expanded), have been hamstrung by the financial elephant in the room. If it hasn't done so already, MLS may find it necessary to revise their expansion goals post-2011.

The bidding process, a necessary evil of expansion, is a risk-reward endeavor. If cities seen as the strongest candidates are either unable or unwilling to meet the demands of the league, MLS is left with a very public failure (St. Louis and Montreal); if the league chooses to cow to the name of a foreign club who simply see the MLS as an entry point to the North American market (Miami), then they risk being marginalized within that market.

Other bids bring other problems: Portland, while appearing to be soccer hotbed from the outside, is having stadium issues of their own. Ditto for Vancouver, where the stop gap stadium proposal of renovating BC Place leaves some cold. Ottawa is an underdog candidate, a smaller Canadian market that is unlikely to jump ahead of Vancouver and Montreal.

The motives behind expansion seem to be simple, and for the good of the professional game in the region. A strong national (and Canadian) footprint should increase the amount of potential fans of the league, thereby increasing television ratings and revenues, and allowing the league to slowly remove the financial restraints it currently operates under. It's also possible, and somewhat likely, that the league is using expansion fees from these new franchises (which was raised to $40 million for this round) to repay those investments made by the league's initial backers (Hunt and Anschutz among them), who have taken heavy losses in the nascent years of MLS.

I get excited to see new teams in the league, and I'm always for new and passionate supporters groups raising the league's profile as a place where passion is high; but I believe MLS needs to tread lightly with further expansion. The money issues that continue to plague Cooper in St. Louis and have threatened to derail the Chester stadium project for Philadelphia are just two signs that no matter the enthusiasm, the market may not bear the resources necessary to make these teams successful.

I don't worry too much about the talent pool becoming diluted; I'm putting faith in both the American soccer infrastructure (such as it is), and a revision of the rules under which teams currently operate when competing for talent. If MLS expands beyond the ability of the talent pool to fill out teams (I'm not even sure how you could quantify that) and doesn't make changes to ensure the talent pool keeps up with demand, then they've made a grave error. I can't see the league trading expansion dollars for a major step back in quality of play; either the talent pool is deeper than we all know, or the league has contingencies in place that will help deepen it.

What will worry me, however, is any action on the part of MLS that will slow progress towards a larger cap or no cap at all. On field success is the only thing that will truly put the league on the international map, and MLS teams will always struggle to compete with their FMF and Central American peers if teams are not given the ability to improve quality and depth (I know, I sound like a broken record). Expansion should be a means to an end, not just a way to infuse the league with cash. Exposure through influential media markets like Philadelphia can certainly be a good thing, but only if MLS and the new franchise are on stable footing with each step.

Additional thoughts:

If you want to read an interesting argument for expanding quickly, check this out. From College to the Pros had a good discussion on the talent pool back in '07 that still applies.

I'm VERY anxious about the Philly name; it can either be a clever way to connect with the local culture, or a giant mistake that makes them a laughing stock in the city from the get-go. In this vein, I'm hoping to write a little something on how MLS teams market themselves locally (inspired by Brian at House of Soccer*) in the near future.

The more I think about it, the more I don't like the Barca Miami thing, unless the connections to Barcelona are low-level. No Barca in the name of the team, for example.

Unless the league plans to back off on handing out two spots this round, the St. Louis struggles have to make the Timber Army very happy (Check out the "expansion meter" on the MLS to Portland website: I don't know what the criteria is, but I like it).

Brain Scan

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 | View Comments
Just a couple of quick thoughts that have been rattling around my head today, and which may be top of mind for some of you out there:

Still trying to figure out what the Primetime Thursday fallout will be. I've seen a couple different opinions on the matter (some spinning positive, some negative), and I don't think anyone knows what it will exactly mean until we see what ESPN does with advertising. It would seem to me that the whole thing will turn on whether or not ESPN pushes MLS or simply lets the whole thing die a slow death.

2. USA vs. Sweden
Happens this week, so of course it's on our minds. I'm hoping for (but not expecting) a tough 2-1 win or 1-1 draw.

3. USA vs. Mexico Buildup
The Sweden game, of course, is just a warm up to the main event on February 11th. Today I saw this (via The Touchline), which I'm sure promises to be just the first salvo we'll see in the next couple of weeks. I'm not sure how the Mexicans can continue to deny that the U.S. is at least on their level, but I guess that's just the nature of rivalry.

4. Expansion Countdown
I won't bite the style of others and rank the candidates, but we're getting close to the next announcment, and speculation is ALL OVER THE PLACE. I've even seem some conjecture that there may only be one spot doled out during this round (thanks to economic factors).

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MLS Primetime Thursday Follow Up

Monday, January 19, 2009 | View Comments
A lot going on personally for me today, and I still somehow set a new record in number of posts (incidentally, I'm averaging 2 page views per post, which I guess means I should keep up the good work; or not).

I wanted to follow up on the news regarding MLS Primetime Thursday's "cancellation", which by now has elicited commentary by a number of soccer bloggers (WVHooligan here, and MLS Daily here).

ESPN is naturally spinning the cancellation, and schedule revision of their MLS package, as a good thing. While there is definitely some smoke being blown up our collectives asses, I'm actually going to back the network on this. Having greater flexibility in game choice is a major advantage going forward, and while some fans may bemoan a lack of diversity among teams involved (expect A LOT of Galaxy, Red Bulls, etc.), the change should pay dividends for all in the long run. While FSC is nice, I believe ESPN exposure for MLS is crucial for the growth of the league, and there won't be any if the recent lousy ratings continue.

ESPN has proffered the possibility that better lead-ins will result in better ratings for MLS games. I'm not sure that's going to be true all of the time, but even if a few stragglers stay on ESPN for the first half of games, the ratings are bound to look better. Better ratings equal more exposure (and larger investments in advertising and the like), which equals better ratings, and so the cycle goes. As soccer fans, we can't sit around and ignore the reality of the situation, crying about lack of exposure when the numbers have, to this point, been abysmal.

I think I've mentioned this before, but it bears reviewing; the Euro 2008 ratings achieved across a couple of ESPN's networks indicates that soccer has an audience to be found in the U.S. It seems clear that the discrepancy is due to my oft-repeated lament of Eurosnobbery, in addition to the perception that MLS regular season match-ups have little significance. All the more reason for ESPN to be allowed to pick games that will maximize ratings based on the importance of the match and extraneous factors like rivalry and star power.

We'll see if these changes put a dent (or bulge) in the ratings; even these changes might mean nothing without an effort to push the games. ESPN needs to step up in the ad department, and do so quickly. Properly highlighting the things that soccer and the MLS (maybe with some video like this) have to offer would go a long way towards drawing viewers.

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MLS Primetime Thursday News

Monday, January 19, 2009 | View Comments
OK, so I'm supposed to be hanging out with the family, but I just couldn't let this slide without an immediate reaction.

Soccer Insider has a blurb about ESPN "dropping" MLS Primtime Thursday:

When I glanced Goff's headline, my heart immediately went into my throat. Luckily, that was an overreaction. Essentially, ESPN has chosen to move away from the regularly scheduled Thursday game and move to a "Game of the Week" format, which will float throughout the season. Although ESPN has made their MLS broadcasts a moving target rather than appointment viewing (which is certainly was for me, just ask my wife), I'm just glad to see them shaking things up. I'm sure their contract doesn't allow them to drop MLS altogether, so there wasn't really any danger of MLS disappearing from ESPN (making my overreaction even more idiotic). If ESPN sees a need to revamp their MLS approach (ratings sucked, I know), it's all good with me. If ESPN is able to better cherry pick the game they broadcast week to week, perhaps ratings will go high enough to justify a little more investment on their part.

If they learn how to properly put on a broadcast, I'm sure ratings would improve as well.

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