Friday, July 13, 2007

now saving soccer in America in.....

Those who follow the debatably-like-fourth-or-fifth-but-maybe-higher-because-NASCAR-and-golf-are-kind-of-dubious-most-popular sport in the US are probably well-aware that today is David Beckham day, and those who don't but turned on their televisions at some point know that he is here to play for Los Angeles and, incidentally, save soccer (at least in the US). This has brought out the usual assortment of idiots on the interblags, who are for the most part each arguing one of the following points -- and sometimes more than one, if they're exceptionally confused:

1) Soccer sucks, and it will never be popular in America, no matter what Beckham does.
2) Beckham is OLD and WASHED UP and just a SET PIECE PLAYER ANYWAY, and will make some money in endorsements, but can't save soccer in America.
3) Soccer in America is JUST FINE and DOESN'T NEED SAVING.

All three points, of course, are wrong -- bet you never thought you'd see that from the internet, did you? The first point is mostly argued by people who've never seen a game above the U-12 level, if at all, and comes with a bunch of spurious stuff about how it's a sissy sport or boring or other tripe that is easily laughable to anyone who's ever seen a decent professional game or strapped on a pair of boots themselves. The second point is closer to the truth, but Becks showed good form in helping Real Madrid win La Liga this season, and the manager who didn't want him back has since been sacked. He's got a couple good seasons left still, and at the MLS level, this could easily extend.

That kind of cuts to the heart of the third point, which since it's coming from people who generally follow soccer in this country, is the most worrisome. Sure, soccer is much better off in this country than it was when I was a kid; the Cup in '94 and then the good showings of the national side in '02 and '06 have helped a lot, and MLS is nowhere near as bad as it once was, and a lot more visible. But I've lived in Europe, and seen ten-year-olds playing at a level that we'd consider good in high school, and seen 20,000 people pack a stadium for a team that was sliding out of the national leagues. Soccer is on a shaky footing in this country and needs all the help it can get.

Case in point: I was watching the Thursday night prime-time MLS match on ESPN2, where Dynamo Houston defeated Chicago 4-0. In this game, Houston looked like a decent professional side; there was solid play and a couple spectacular goals, but the impression that we have a world-competitive league in the US is a Potemkin village. Houston is the MLS points leader. Chicago is at the bottom of the table, in managerial chaos, and they were making some absolute bush league mistakes last night. I play with a bunch of guys from work on an informal basis (not good enough to play in a pyramid league, nobody else has a works side to play against in this area), and some of the stuff Chicago was doing, we yell at each other for. Just mental and physical mistakes that you wouldn't want to make playing in the park.

In any other league, though, there would be consequences. Bad play gets you relegated; you lose money from TV contracts and it is such a difficult and painful process to retool financially and rebuild your team that the owners have an explicit and relentless capitalist motivation to win games. In the current model, based on the cartels in other American major league sports, the clubs are not independent entities, and the relegation of a franchise based on poor play would be basis for a breach of contract suit. Ask an Arizona Cardinals fan what it's like when owners don't feel any pressure to win games.

Unfortunately, relegation only emerges as an option when you have a pool of hungry-but-not-quite-top-flight clubs beneath the top league desperate to move up. We don't have that here, not yet; though there are four tiers down the pyramid from MLS (MLS2, then three leagues that do promote/relegate) in most places, the quality of the game there is not high, and a lot of the players are foreign born and in many cases not permanent residents. My brother plays on a bottom-tier club in Boston, and is one of three or four Americans on a roster of 15 to 20. This is one of the integrated sides; they've played against the local Brazilian team and Boston Nigerians, and there are so many Irish clubs kicking around that his team, which actually has a Gaelic word in their name, had to pick Barca's colors in order to avoid coordinating their particular shade of green with everyone else.

Some of these folks will stick around and continue playing until they have to start an Altliga, providing a broader foundation for the game, but others will drift back off to where they came from. This is our loss, because what really drives soccer in other countries is the idea of sport as something to do rather than something to watch. It's fundamentally something that anyone can do with minimal equipment, and people do do it, all the time. Fans will show up in the stands to watch the game, but what you don't see broadcast back is that many of the people are connected to the game on more than the professional level; they watch their kids, and many of them still play themselves, for a local amateur league side or just with people from their work or their regular pub. Being a fan isn't just about following a particular team, but being involved with the game on a broader level.

The point of all of this is that a lot of things will have to change -- or more accurately, continue changing -- for soccer to establish itself here to anywhere near the level it's at in most parts of the rest of the world. David Beckham will be able to help drive some of them; if he can win a game or two on penalty for Galaxy a season and supplant their defensive enough so that they draw a couple times rather than losing, that's a definite contribution to having a competitive team in a large market again, and his visibility will help draw interest to the sport, perhaps more butts to the seats, and from there into the footballing culture. But the life-or-death attachment to teams won't come until the season is a life-or-death proposition for the clubs via relegation and promotion, and that won't happen until we get enough people -- and, of course, good people, not schlubs like me who occasionally have a kickaround -- playing to form a proper pyramid (leagues in the major footballing nations of Europe are regularly twice as deep as the pyramid in the US) and can bust up the MLS cartel model.

Can it happen? Sure, and a lot of these things are already in place, slowly advancing. But it's a glacial change, and is going to involve a shift in the culture that flies in the face of about every other gathering trend; Americans are getting fatter and socializing less, which speaks ill of their prospects at organizing a team and then playing competently on it. A higher profile for the pro league helps, and a high-profile international can help in that regard, but the work is not just for the likes of Beckham, but also for the likes of my brother trying to lead a motley gang of expats to the local top flight, the likes of our works "captain" Nagi organizing recreational squads and trying to hunt up others to set up a inter-company league, and the likes of me and hordes of others biting the bullet and suiting up, vowing this week to run a little harder, turn a little faster, and kick with a little more control than last week. Do what you can, have fun doing it.

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