Observations from the soccer pitch

A series of things that came to mind while watching the U.S. national soccer team’s 3-2 loss to Brazil in yesterday’s Confederations Cup final in Johannesburg, South Africa:

* Yes, I did spend a Sunday afternoon watching soccer!  I’m not one of those ingrown rednecks who hates soccer because it’s supposedly a “sissy” sport (people who say that have clearly never watched a soccer match at any level) or because it’s popular in Europe (so are the Olympics – am I supposed to skip those too?) or because it’s “boring” (which it most certainly isn’t).  I enjoy a well-played international match – if anything, international football has become my sixth-favorite sport:

  • 1. Baseball
  • 2. Fantasy baseball
  • 3. Baseball analysis
  • 4. Talking/arguing about baseball
  • 5. NBA basketball
  • 6. International soccer
  • 947. NASCAR

I haven’t watched MLS, because it’s hard to get into it when a) you know you’re not watching the best players (MLS is still minor-league compared to the top European leagues, as David Beckham has taken pains to point out), and b) you’re not familiar with the names.  I could get into it, though, given a little study.  But when the international matches come around, I’m becoming more and more inclined to check them out – at least when the U.S. is competing.  Baby steps.

* And yesterday, the U.S. team really was competing.  The Confederations Cup final was the first time ever that the Stars and Stripes had made the final of a FIFA (the international football governing body) event.  Often, the U.S. is stuck in line behind such powerhouses as Costa Rica and Paraguay in the international soccer scene, so this was a major step up.  A lot of people were calling the U.S.’s victory last week over Spain – then the #1 team in the world and holder of a 35-game unbeaten streak going back to 2006 – as the biggest moment in American soccer history, and a few uncautious souls compared it to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets.  I’m not going that far, but it was a pretty big deal.  I know that after I heard about the win, I played this video featuring U.S. star Clint Dempsey four straight times just to celebrate.

Will this mean a huge boost for soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport here?  No … but it will mean a small boost.  And that’s not a bad thing, especially with the World Cup coming around next year.

(Also something that might help: a nickname.  Brazil’s team is the “Seleção” – the Selection – referring to their elite status; see also Spain’s “La Seleccion.”  Italy’s is the “Azzurri” for their blue uniforms.  Mexico’s is “La Tri” for the three colors on the Mexican flag.  Heck, even Cameroon is “the Indomitable Lions.”  Seriously, Cameroon!  Meanwhile, the United States is … nothing.  We need a cool nickname.  I like “Stars and Stripes” myself – distinctive, has a nice ring to it, plus it plays up the differences with Mexico, our longest-standing rival.  They could even play “Stars and Stripes Forever” on the PA system after goals at home matches.  I guess they could also go with “the Bald Eagles” after our national bird and/or U.S. coach Bob Bradley, but I prefer “Stars and Stripes.”  Let’s make this happen.)

* I watched the game on my computer using ESPN.com’s ESPN360 live broadcast feature, which is really well done – I recommend it if you have a computer that runs faster than my 2004 model.  With our PC, it got a little stuttery on occasion, but otherwise came through nice and clear.  The announcing, by JP Dellacamera and former U.S. team member John Harkes, was crisp and easy to follow, and they took time to explain things so more casual fans (like me) could follow the action.  I liked the use of distant camera angles, which allowed me to see teams’ strategies as they developed; whenever they went to a close-up on a play, I lost the flow of action.

* Again, I’m still learning the nuances of the game – stuff I didn’t pick up when I was playing youth soccer back in the 1970s – but it helped that I watch the NBA.  Like basketball, the action is constant and frenetic, so it places a premium on stamina and athleticism.  Like basketball, tactics mainly involve placing your team around the playing area in strategic spots, and being able to pass to a teammate so they can score.  Like basketball, when one team knocks the ball out of bounds, the other team gets the ball.  I also noticed a similarity to the NFL in that they don’t usually penalize a player for getting in another player’s way if it was incidental contact while going after the ball – similar to pass-interference rules.

One improvement over the NBA: the referees in the match were all younger guys, apparently in their thirties, in good shape and thus able to keep up with the plays.  The NBA has fat dudes in their sixties calling touch fouls from halfway down the court.  David Stern, take note.

* The general flow of a soccer game lends itself to television in some ways and harms it in others.  The action is constant and a scoring opportunity can develop fairly quickly, so you don’t notice the passage of time as much as you do in, say, an NFL matchup.  (I found that I wasn’t really aware of the clock much, even though it was on screen the whole game.)  Despite this, there was still enough space for replays of key moments without having to worry about missing any important moves.  The downside is for the network showing the match, since with 45-minutes-plus bonus-time-with-no-interruptions halves, where do you put all those beer commercials?  Right – you can’t.  I suspect the broadcasters will think of something, though.  I bet if Fox were to take over the MLS contract, they could develop some things.  (And they can’t possibly do a worse job than they’ve done with baseball, right?  On second thought, forget I brought it up – the last thing we need in this world is Cantor the Talking Soccer Ball …)

* Apparently the latest in soccer-fan noisemaking is something called a vuvuzela.  It’s a South African innovation, a three-foot-long horn that makes a sound like a cross between an angry wasp and Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber doing The Most Annoying Sound in the World.  Have twenty thousand people blowing them in a stadium and you’d think you were being attack by swarms of bees.  FIFA is talking about banning them, and dear heavens, I hope they do!  I thought ThunderStix were bad, but these take the cake.  Whatever happened to good old-fashioned cheering, people?

* The first half of Sunday’s match was a textbook in what the U.S. team does best: defense.  Tim Howard was a brick wall the entire 46 minutes, and the defenders in front of him were at their peak.  Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit had so shut down the middle of the box that the Brazilians were forced to shoot more from the sides.  I had never heard of Jonathan Spector, the right back, before yesterday, but every time the Seleção went at him, he turned them back – an amazing performance.  The defensive success produced more opportunities for the top U.S. scorers – Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies – to get the ball downfield, leading to the two American goals.

* And the second half was a textbook in what the U.S. team still has trouble with – consistency, depth and attacking.  Luis Fabiano got one past Howard in the first minute back, and the air began to slowly leak out of the Stars and Stripes from there.  Pretty soon, it was like the field wasn’t level anymore; Brazil started peppering the U.S. goal, and Howard began yelling at his defense.  (“Hey, guys, wouldja mind getting between me and the ball sometime?  Can you find it in yer hearts?”  That’s not a direct quote, but it’s the gist – they didn’t have Howard miked, and I think he mixed some F-bombs in there.)  I don’t think the U.S. even got a shot on the Brazilian goal in the first 18 minutes after halftime.  Brazil racked up three scores in the second half, and it should have been four – replay showed that Howard didn’t catch one kick until it was already past the goal line.  When they finally went to substitute, one of the guys they put in was Sacha Kljestan, who had reportedly played his way out of the starting lineup (scroll down to the halftime comments).  If that’s your closer, you have problems.

But at least the U.S. got as far as they did.  And hey, it was Brazil, one of soccer’s Big Five (along with England, France, Germany and Italy; apologies to Spain and Argentina), so you can’t expect an easy game.  As I commented to the Supermodel, “we messed with the best, we died like the rest.”  No shame in losing by a late goal to the Seleção.

* In short, the game showed what the Stars and Stripes (see how well that works?) are capable of when they’re firing on all cylinders, and what they’re reduced to when they aren’t.  On their best day, they can take out a Spain or Brazil, or force Italy into a tie.  (Win drinks in a bar with this question: Italy went 6-0-1 in the 2006 World Cup; who was the one side they didn’t beat?  Answer – the U.S., which held them to a 1-1 draw.)  On their worst, they can get schooled by Costa Rica (which happened earlier this year).  Put it all together, and you get a team that’s 14th in the world – not in the top tier, not necessarily in the second tier, but scrapping to work their way to elite status.  A lot of progress still needs to be made.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that some progress is being made.  And if you don’t believe me, ask the Spaniards and Brazilians.  “Don’t tread on this …”


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