There are not a lot of things that I would get out of bed for at 2:30 in the morning, but this past Monday morning, there I was, getting out of bed and putting in my contacts. There was no emergency, no plane to catch, and no girl to escape from in the middle of the night. But there was a soccer game. The World Cup has been going on for a couple of weeks over in South Korea and Japan, and the main difference between past years and this year is that the United States is actually winning games. I was not a believer at first, but after the victory over Portugal, I began to believe. The loss against Poland was a disappointment, but after watching and reading about this U.S. team, you could tell they were unlike the 1994 and 1998 U.S. teams, which were long on heart, but short on talent. It is unfortunate that the games on ESPN and Univision are at such odd times, but that is the price you pay to watch events live. NBC and the Olympics could learn something from this, there is a television market for marquee sports that fans will watch live, as opposed to "plausibly live", if you give them the opportunity. Many games are rebroadcast on ABC for those of you who would prefer to stay in bed. Although the small soccer faithful have long been vocal in this country, the mass following of the sport has not materialized. There has always been this misconception that liking soccer is somehow un-American. This attitude is old and tired. Just because you follow soccer does not mean that you don't care who Tubby plays at point guard. Soccer was not invented by us, but neither was golf, and we seem to love that. So, how can American soccer capitalize on this great World Cup run? There is no reason to believe that soccer cannot become at least as popular as hockey in America, but there are a few things that need to happen for them to establish a national following and attract more fans.
Winning is the best thing that the U.S. team can do if they want to capture the nation's attention. The 2000 U.S. Women's World Cup team showed what many of us already knew: America loves winners. It probably didn't hurt that they were pretty hot, but winning is always guaranteed to attract attention. The men's dead last finish in the 1998 World Cup left a horrible taste in the mouths of most fans, but it almost killed the sport for the casual fan, who probably figured this year was going to be more of the same. This year's squad is packed with talented players who know how to win, such as Claudio Reyna and Brad Friedel, and are hungry for more. They have played in Europe and know they can compete with the international players. Head Coach Bruce Arena is a flat-out winner. He has won in college, Major League Soccer (MLS), and now is excelling in international play. The 2-0 victory over Mexico sets the stage for a battle with perennial power Germany. This game should receive a lot of attention and a victory could put Coach Arena and his boys at the forefront of American sports for the first part of the summer. They have already won an elimination game for the first time, and even the president is starting to notice. If George W. Bush can follow and appreciate soccer, there is no reason that anyone else should have a hard time.
Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional league that came about as a result of the 1994 World Cup hosted here in America, also needs to improve. The league is looked down upon by many of the other countries as being almost a minor league and below the leagues that play in Europe. The fact that Coach Arena and many of the players on the U.S. team play, or have played, in MLS should begin to show everyone that the league may be stronger than they believe. The problem is that the European leagues are the best, and they pay the best. American players want to play in Europe for the same reason European basketball stars want to play in the NBA. They want to play against the best and make some money while they do it. It will be hard for MLS and soccer in America to prosper if the best players keep leaving to go play in Europe. Right now, the MLS is centrally owned with limits on player salaries. They also rotate players around, trying to make sure each team is competitive. While this is a pleasant idea, the MLS needs to cut the apron strings and let each team survive or die on their own. If the New York MetroStars had George Steinbrenner as an owner, they would have the money to keep their players, and also attract top foreign talent with paydays equal to those of other leagues. This may cause the demise of some MLS teams, but in the long run it will be the best for the league.
In the same vein as keeping top players from leaving for Europe, the U.S. needs to keep developing their players younger and younger. 20-year-olds Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley are the future of soccer. They were spotted early, taken out of high school, and have gained experience playing in the MLS. Unlike other countries, and other sports such as basketball or baseball, the demographic that plays soccer has been pretty narrow. A lot of people see it as a middle class suburban sport. Can you imagine Allen Iverson, with his speed and toughness, streaking down the pitch? How about John Stockton directing the offense through the midfield, or Brett Favre barking orders from the goalie box? If the MLS keeps players in this country, someone like Beasley, who already has the cool nickname, RUN-DMB, or Donovan, who's got the poster-boy looks going for him, have a chance to be more than soccer stars. Either of them could become the Tiger Woods of soccer to some degree, attracting a whole new crowd to the game. If America had a genuine soccer star, someone that everybody knew, that would only increase the demographics of kids that want to play the sport.
There is a small community growing, not just here in Lexington, but all over the country. They are not your stereotypical "soccer fan", who reads Eurosport and tapes games off of Fox World. They are sports fans, who are taking a break after the NBA Playoff and before baseball's pennant races heat up, to watch a little soccer. They wear the bags under their eyes and their stifled yawns as badges of honor. They are at Magee's Bakery, (kind enough to be open during U.S. games) at 3:00 a.m. getting the coffee they will need to fuel them through the day. They are calling my house from a hotel room in Chicago to ask if I saw Donovan's goal against Mexico. They are waiting to hear what patriotic phrase ESPN announcer Jack Edward will use to describe a U.S. victory this time. Having already said "Mine eyes have seen the glory!" for Portugal and "Land of the free, Home of the brave!" for Mexico, my money is on "Oh Say Can You See!" if the U.S. defeats Germany next Friday morning at 7:30. So, get up early this Friday, settle in front of the television, or even come over to my house. A U.S. win would not only be history making, but the next step in building America into a world wide soccer power, and it will be something you do not want to miss.
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