Systemic Analysis of Soccer in the United States –
Soccer is a beautiful game. Soccer is also a huge part of my life. I started playing at the age of 5, played in high school, college, and a little bit of semi-pro in Spain. After returning from Spain I continued to play and also began coaching and have coached for the greater part of the past 10 years in KS, MO and now AR.
Some of you were maybe wondering how long it was going to take me to come down from the ledge when the US lost against Ghana which ended the US’s run in the World Cup – well honestly, I’m not that upset. Don’t get me wrong, I’m upset about a lot of things that happened in the World Cup in terms of tactics, substitutions, formations, etc with our team, but the result(s) with the team and coach we had on the pitch was expected from those who know soccer – we hoped for more, but knew what to expect. I’m proud of the boys we had out there – they played hard (not well) but they can only do as much as their ability allows, and the American spirit of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to carry us beyond our talent and ability just does not happen in the World Cup…too often.
For example – Brazil is a world class team and is steamrolling through the World Cup right now and they look on target to win their 6th World Cup (currently tied with Italy with 5 titles) – well, their nation at home is not pleased with their team. Sure the people are happy they are winning, but for Brazilians it’s not solely about winning, it’s about HOW you win – joga bonito (play beautifully). The team and coach are very systematic and programmed (and effective), but that does not sit well with the beautiful game that Brazilians know which dazzle you with passing, off the ball runs, and touches that will mesmerize you into a trance before they pounce and leave you holding their jock-strap while they are in the corner dancing the samba with the corner flag in celebration of their goal-azo. For as much as we as a nation try we might occasionally beat the great teams but Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Germany, France etc have this sport engrained in their culture and this is the sport that means EVERYTHING to them.
The development of professional athletes is different in the United States than it is all across the world. There is no Rock Chalk Chant or calling the Hogs in Spain or Italy. The athletes in Europe don’t play college soccer, football, basketball etc. They are viewed in different competitive leagues growing up and then selected to be brought into the youth developmental system of different professional teams – Manchester United, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona, etc etc. They might enter the youth system at age 14, 15 or 16 or maybe later and continue on progressing through the different age groups of the team until they reach the senior team. For soccer, that’s the correct way to do it when considering player development and the international game. The systems (schools, camps, selection pools, etc) we have in place in the United States will allow us to do well on the international level, but not to churn out the amount of top-notch players that the elite countries churn out each and every year which would keep us in the top 5 in the world perennially.
Landon Donovan is an extremely talented player and has played in the past 3 World Cups for the USA – pretty good right?…well, only because there’s no one better to surpass him. In Spain (or any other aforementioned country) if you are lucky enough to play in 3 World Cups you are an absolute stud. Also, look at the bashing that France, Italy, and England have taken since being ousted from the World Cup. Their countries expect greatness game in and game out…is it a little cocky?…sure, maybe, but they all have won a World Cup and turn out quality players each and every year AND have a huge pipeline of quality players waiting in the wings – they have earned the right to be a bit cocky and expect better from their teams. Our systems have failed us thus far and we’re taking steps to rectify the situation but it will take a long time before our systems can produce numerous dominant players at the same time.
Cultural Analysis of the World Cup’s Impact on the USA –
The attention we give to sports in a way can symbolize our interaction with our friends. We only have so much room for a certain number of close friends that we interact with regularly and consistently*. Imagine a bulls-eye, not an actual bull’s eye, but the type of bulls-eye used for target practice. In the inner circle are our best friends and we might have room for about 3, 4 or 5 good, close friends. When you move to the next ring you have more room for friends and these are good friends too, but not as close as the ones on the inner circle. Then you go to the next circle, and the next, and the next. Sports can mimic this. In my inner circle I have: KU football and basketball NCAA football and basketball, MLB, and soccer (World Cup, La Liga, Premier League, Serie A). On the next outer ring I have NFL, NBA, golf, and college baseball. In the next ring I have: Olympic sports, college baseball and Women’s National Team soccer. In the farthest ring on the bulls-eye completely away from everything pure and holy resides NASCAR…ugh…not even sure I can recognize it as a sport – it’s hillbillies in their souped up go-carts.
*social media has expanded the circles and in a way has added a completely separate plane which allows us greater interaction with all our friends near, far and in-between.
That being said, soccer in the USA might be in the inner circle of interest for some people, or it might be in the next circle for others, and then on the outermost periphery for most people – that’s ok. I’m not the type of fan that believes that soccer, football, fútbol, calcio, foosball, futebol, etc needs to be the dominant sport in the US – it’s not going to happen; heck I don’t think it’s even my #1 sport. Economic factors and cultural factors play into where soccer lands in the sports landscape of the United States and I’m perfectly ok with that; but as far as general interest in the United States it’s hard to deny that the 2010 World Cup piqued the interest of the common sports fan of the United States.
Some quick numbers:
- USA vs. Ghana – in the USA, seen by 14.9 million on ABC and an additional 4.5 on Univision – a record for the World Cup in the US. (this number doesn’t include all the people gathered at bars to watch the game together)
- Power & Light Entertainment District in downtown KC had 10,000 people watching it in their pavilion
- 19.4 million US viewers for an afternoon game in the summer.
- 19.4 million is the same number of viewers as the 6 prime-time games of last year’s World Series
- USA vs. Canada gold medal game in the Olympics garnered 27.6 million viewers; but that was in the winter with less ability to be outside
- through 52 games ESPN’s viewership is up 58%
- for ESPN 28% increase in viewership for games not involving the USA
Game Analysis –
I’m not going to go into great detail but will highlight some snippets that had me concerned before the World Cup even began. 2010 was definitely a step back tactically compared to 2002 and 2006. I don’t want this to sound overtly negative because I can make it sound like I’m a genius with that whole hindsight saying, but these are concerns I had way before the World Cup began that I would discuss with my soccer cohorts when we would analyze the games, selections, formations, etc. I do believe in terms of success this World Cup was a step back especially considering our side of the bracket was an absolute gift. In 2002 and 2006 we saw much better tactics, player usage, and formation implementation.
Starting near the top – our coach Bob Bradley. I was not happy with his selection in 2007. Overall he’s mediocre at best. He should have been removed in 2009 but the US camp knew that it was too late to replace him and bring in somebody knew. His substitution patterns were fair, but not overly tactical. His formations were not very creative when considering the players he selected. And the players he selected were very suspect. His son Michael Bradley is the epitome of the American spirit – he’s a hard worker – but he’s not the type of central mid-fielder we need to bring our team together. An interesting fact is that before Bob Bradley became coach he was not getting a sniff of action with the national team and then all of a sudden he becomes a regular starter…this seems a bit suspect when considering the betterment of the team. But even when I type that I go back to a statement I made above regarding the US not having a bounty of quality players. Lesser of two evils I guess. In the interest of US Soccer progressing Bradley should not continue as coach.
Some people commented they were concerned about the lack of scoring by our forwards – not scoring is not a huge concern of mine depending on what they are doing off the ball. I was a big concerned with their lack of creativity up top.
Defending, defending, and defending. Ok, I’ll be honest, as a player I’m a defensive midfielder and a stopper so I can add more thoughts on this than thoughts on our forwards. The teams I’ve played on and have coached have always been defensively stout primarily because this is my specialty so I could go on for days and days in this area but there were a couple key areas that stood out regarding our defensive deficiencies. Overall our defending was atrocious. Some of the atrocities came in the form of simple communication, fundamentals of relieving pressure, and behind the scenes, also player selection. Onyewu quite simply should not have been on the field or with them at the cup since he was not healthy. If he’s 100% he’s a quality defender but he was just coming off of an injury and should not have been in there or even on the team. What happened to Jimmy Conrad’s place on the team? He’s a defender that is so sound in the fundamentals and has a calming presence as a central defender that I wonder if he would have been selected for the team how much he could have made up for in terms of the other players’ deficiencies.
This last thought is definitely a hot topic now – instant replay. In some form it needs to be included when there is a goal. It was almost a tragic departure for the US because of botched calls and England and Mexico were absolutely robbed – and who knows, maybe if those goals are not allowed against England and Mexico maybe the momentum doesn’t shift as it did in both games.
Ok, in bringing this long post to a close. I’m not distraught over the loss b/c I didn’t have delusions of grandeur with our team. In KU’s loss to Northern Iowa I was very distraught b/c we were definitely the best team and we flamed out – that was quite upsetting. But with the World Cup before the World Cup started I knew we should advance out of group but that we had glaring deficiencies all over the field, and primarily in our defense, to be able to advance further against quality teams. The most upsetting part about the US not advancing in the tournament was the gift we were given on our side of the bracket – if we beat Ghana then we face Uruguay (decent team but not amazing), then if we beat Uruguay we would’ve been in the semi-finals of the World Cup. Now that is success.
This tournament comes around every 4 years and that is probably a good thing because it wreaks havoc on my nerves but I’ve already told Tracy that to celebrate our 4 year anniversary we will be vacationing in Brazil…the location of the 2014 World Cup. U-S-A!!
As for now I’ll continue to pull for the red, white, and blue – and educate those who want to learn more about soccer, football, fútbol, calcio, foosball, futebol, or whatever you want to call it. No matter what you want to call it, it is a beautiful game.