In other words, I’m no newcomer to following the sport on the world’s stage and the modern evolution of the game in this country.
When the Kansas City Wiz launched in 199 with the potty friendly marketing motto, “You gotta go!” that attracted stadium flyovers by plumbers cracking bathroom jokes, nobody in the local sports media knew quite what to expect.They dutifully gathered at Arrowhead to see what this new-fangled sport was about because it was Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt‘s and they didn’t want to miss the next big thing.
Well, turns out it took awhile.
Until recent years when the legions of small kids finally grew up and got paychecks after playing embarrassingly bad soccer in their youth. And until after many were drawn by the intrigue and drama of the far superior players and teams playing on the international stage, did more traditional sports fans started paying closer attention to the sport.
And voila, they liked what they saw.
And they finally learned enough about the game to develop an understanding that transcended making fun of low scoring and tie games as if the Chiefs had triumphantly walked away from a zero-zero score against the Denver Broncos in Mile High Stadium.
In short, people in this country have finally started to get soccer.
Oddly, among the last to truly understand the game is this country’s news and sports media. I heard some of the most silly and trite observations and expressions of support that were made by well-intentioned reporters and news anchors at CNN, for example.
And of course, there was the bold headline in the Lawrence Journal World that declared, “USA Loses,” after its 2-2 tie game against Portugal.
Then in today’s Kansas City Star comes the headline, “A Valiant Effort.”
Look, to anyone who’s followed soccer for any length of time, one thing was clear yesterday.
Which wasn’t so much the case for the USA squad, it’s flaws and inferior play were evident throughout the team’s entire World Cup run.
From Day One the US struggled with passing and to maintain possession and were lucky to sneak past “a troubled Ghana, injured Portugal, and half-speed Germany,” as World Soccer Talk‘s Robert Hay puts it.
Check out what CBS Sports Jerry Hinnen had to say about yesterday’s game:
“If you needed a handy representation of the gulf in raw quality between Belgium and the United States, look no further than each side’s respective substitutions at striker. With the US under siege and clinging desperately to the 0-0 scoreline that would get them to extra time, Jurgen Klinsmann brought on Chris Wondolowski — a 31-year-old MLS veteran who’s spent his entire pro career in the United States and developed a reputation as a ruthless poacher in front of goal. The only problem is that, terrific as he’s been in MLS, he hasn’t developed a reputation for much else at any other level.
Meanwhile, at the start of that extra time, Belgium brought on Romelu Lukaku. A 21-year-old powerhouse with speed, touch, and no shortage of brute force, Lukaku led Everton in scoring this past season while on loan from Chelsea — and probably raising his value on the transfer market above the majority of the US’s entire starting 11 combined.”
And in a way, this is why sophisticated fans of the soccer in this country have actually slowed the growth of Major League Soccer. Because they understand that money talks and with rare exception the by far superior soccer players from here leave to seek their fame and fortune on the international stage where they will be handsomely rewarded.
In time that may all even out and MLS may grow enough to compete to keep this country’s best players. However does anybody think the National Football League’s biggest stars would consider for one moment playing in the Canadian Football League or European Football League? Of course not.
And getting out of MLS and playing in the big leagues abroad is what star USA players like goalie Tim Howard dream of. That’s why the 35 year-old goalie who helped keep the US in the game yesterday left MLS team the lowly New York Metrostars for international powerhouse Manchester United in 2003.
The USA’s best players would be foolish to play for chump change against mediocre teams in MLS if their talent and quality of play afforded them the opportunity to play for superior teams and big bucks abroad.
So did the USA lose to Portugal in its 2-2 tie game?
Of course not, but in a way they did, because even against a wounded Portugal, the USA’s limited talent squandered a dramatic victory with just seconds to go in the game.
And was Team USA’s effort yesterday against Belgium a “valiant” one?
Please, Tim Howard’s maybe.
The 2014 World Cup will go a long way in helping establish an interest and understanding in the sport of football in this country. And that understanding may finally help erode the resentment many baseball, football, hockey and basketball fans in this country have long felt for soccer.
Because in “the world’s game,” even Super Powers can and do get their your you-know-whats handed to them by “lesser” countries like Belgium and Portugal. And in this country we subscribe to the philosophy that “size matters.”
Like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox owning Kansas City’s A’s and Royals over the years via lucrative television contracts and licensing deals.
And while Kansas City got some major props for having two Sporting KC players on the squad, they graded poorly in the CBS Sports Player Ratings (1 to 10 scale) from yesterday’s loss to Belgium.
“CB Matt Besler, 6. Besler was an absolute rock for some 93 minutes … and then couldn’t deal with a barreling Lukaku, slipped, and watched the end result become the all-important first Belgium goal. Soccer is cruel.”
“RM Graham Zusi, 4. There was a time in World Cup qualifying when it looked like Zusi was Landon Donovan‘s heir apparent to the role of ‘cutting, hard-working two-way wide midfielder,’ even if he wasn’t quite as comfortable tucking inside as Donovan was (and was more comfortable delivering crosses into the box). It didn’t materialize at this World Cup, as Zusi never seemed comfortable on the ball, and against Belgium committed both a handful of poor giveaways and could not do much with his handful of touches inside the box.”
So yes, we’ve come a long way from the time several years back when Star editor Mike Fannin reached across the aisle and killed one of my columns in the FYI section about a respected journalist who had laid out an edgy explanation about most American sportswriters not getting soccer.
No names were named, no fingers pointed Kansas City’s way, it was merely an overview of how the sport was being treated by this country’s sports media and obviously it hit too close to home.
They’ve still got a long way to go too, but at least we’re on the right path…finally.