Monday, April 1, 2013

A Game of Almosts in a Land of Absolutes

I just don't know how I feel about ties. Obviously, the 0-0 tie the USMNT pulled out last Tuesday against Mexico in Mexico City is a great result and significantly bolsters our chances to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. Azteca is one of the most hostile home stadiums in worldwide sports, between the barely-breathable air and the sheer number of incredibly hostile fans they manage to pack into the place, it's no wonder that the most cheerful description offered of the place was given by former National Team starter Eric Wynalda when he simply called it "hell." And the Mexican team doesn't do anything to make it any easier on opponents, continually justifying the daunting 68-1-6 record in World Cup Qualifiers played in Azteca heading into last Tuesday night's match.
The tie is great by all American accounts. It puts us in the driver's seat in regards to our World Cup future, and it puts the most difficult part of our qualifying campaign behind us, without leaving too many bumps and bruises. But then again, it's a tie.
Soccer is the only major sport in America where ties occur frequently. Only 18 ties have happened in the NFL since the sudden-death overtime rule was implemented in 1974, the NHL eliminated ties in favor of penalty shootouts in the flurry of rule changes implicated in 2004 which have helped the sport's resurgence in popularity since then, and basketball and baseball traditionally have never ended in ties. The case of the NHL is particularly fascinating, as they eliminated ties in an effort to appeal to more American fans, and succeeded.
In America the adage remains that "a tie is like kissing your sister" (a local chapter of The American Outlaws posted in response to the match that this one was indeed like kissing your sister "if your sister is Kate Upton and you were adopted"). Americans simply dislike ties. We want a winner and a loser just like we want a good guy and a bad guy. We're a nation of extremes. You're a Democrat or a Republican, young or old, hot or not. We're a binary nation, with no room for the middle.
Most would suggest that some ties look like wins and some look like losses. Tuesday's match is a perfect example. The American media outlets heralded it as a massive achievement, beating a team who might just be better than us in a stadium they usually win in. Mexican papers profiled it as a loss, immediately calling for the job of the Mexican manager. But something deep inside us, put there by our upbringing and maintained by our shared culture of things that are "American," wants to see us keep playing until we win, or lose trying. Who cares if they outshot us 19-1?? We're the USA! We can do anything!
Maybe this is one of the reasons that Americans have a hard time latching on to the beautiful game. If you ask most Americans what they learned about war in history class, they'll say we won both of the World Wars, but lost in Vietnam and Korea. They don't know what changes were affected at the end of these engagements, or why specifically we actually got involved. We just know a win or loss.
Could one of the reasons that so many Americans come to the sport during a World Cup and abandon it after is because after a few quick group stage matches, there is a clear winner and loser in each match? Do you think that ties hamper the sport's ability to attract an audience here in America? Do you think this is a uniquely American way of thinking about the sport, or do even the more established soccer countries sometimes have these feelings of doubt?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Am I a Fan Yet?

How much do you owe to your team before you become a fan? We've all had that moment happen to us, where we are having a nice conversation with another supporter of your club, and they say something like "Yeah, I bet Gonzalez gets the start." You clam up. You don't even know which team Gonzalez plays for. It's all the worse when you discover that he does in fact play for the team you wish to call yourself a "fan" of, and he started at defensive mid for the first half of last year until he got a calf injury which sidelined him until apparently this Saturday. And then you have that moment of shame we've all experienced at some point or another where you wonder "do I really deserve to call myself a fan?"
Well, do you? Who's to say? Certainly there will always be someone who has been a fan for longer than you. There will always be those more informed than you about your team and about its history. Luckily, as American soccer fans we are generally more accepting of newcomers who are less knowledgable than us, as most of us have come to the sport in the last 5-10 years. However, the kind response won't make these moments feel any better.
I've been a sports fan my whole life (my baby trick was that I could name the entire 1992 Olympic Dream Team, right down to Chris Mullin and Karl "The Mailman" Malone. Didn't have to look those up. Just remembered them.) And I've found myself on both sides of this embarrassing moment more times than I can count. I feel just as qualified as anybody to make this list of things you should know as a fan, and if you have any more you feel like I missed go ahead and say so in the comments. There's a lot of different types of fans with different perspectives on what's important to know, and I'd love to hear from as many opinions as I can get.
So, here's Roman's list of things to know to be a "fan":

Know your schedule: 
Please, this is the most basic thing you can know. Know who you're playing next and when. If you want to go above and beyond, know the schedule for the next few weeks. But at the very least, when someone asks "who're they playing this week?" BE ABLE TO ANSWER THEM. This is harder in some sports than in others, but in soccer when you have just one or two matches a week it shouldn't be that difficult.
Know how you're doing: 
Don't only know who they're about to play, but know who they have played and what the outcome was! Is your team top of the table? Are they fighting for a playoff spot? Are they down scrapping to extricate themselves from last place? How a team's doing is what determine's the perceptions of them. As Bill Parcells said "You are what your record says you are."
Know your key players: 
I'm awful with both names and faces, so I understand if this one is difficult for you. And it's harder for some teams than others. If you're a Galaxy fan and you've got Keane, Magee, and sometimes Donovan under your belt, you're fine. But for someone like FC Dallas who has a constantly changing lineup and a different goalscorer every week, and similar names like Jackson and Jacobson, it's like studying for a midterm. Still, there are always names to know. Fan favorites, frequent scorers, new signings, should be known by good fans (not to mention the name of the manager, how else will you know whose name to curse when your team is doing awful?). Just start with a few players who really stand out, or have done well in the last couple matches. The rest will come, but starting with that foothold is an invaluable resource to build upon.
Know what makes your team unique:
This one can be defined differently for each team, but that's why it's so necessary. Know team traditions, rivalries, maybe a bit of team history. Who's that statue of at the entrance to the stadium? Has your team won a championship? Who are the supporter's groups, and what are some of their interesting chants? Does your team have a nickname or rallying cry? You can go into as much depth as you want with this, but every little fact you find out brings you that much closer to your team.

There are a lot of ways to go about becoming a better fan, so pick your favorite. Read match recaps and articles about the team in local media outlets. Read through the team's Wikipedia page. Talk to someone who's clearly been around longer about what you should know. But most of all, stand beside your team through thick and thin, wear their gear (but never the day after a big loss, that just makes you look like you have no clue what's going on), and get together with other fans to watch the matches and talk about the team. There's always a way to be a supporter, just go out and find it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Eradicating Football Loyalists

I recognize the irony of featuring a player who plays in the BPL above this post, but it gets the message across and after his goal on Friday I'd say he's American enough for me.

I know I've neglected this blog for quite a while, and for that I apologize. Yesterday, however, I heard something so enraging that I had to hop on here to tell you all about it.
At our family dinner last night, my dad was telling us about some friends of the family who had recently taken a trip to London to see a match at Emirates Stadium and another at White Hart Lane. Needless to say, I was extremely jealous and pestering my dad with every question I thought he might be able to answer, eager to gobble up every little morsel of information I could so I could attempt to live vicariously through the stories I heard.
Eventually, attempting to change the subject a bit to keep me from bothering him, my dad recounted how he told our friend that I go to FC Dallas matches. To which his friend replied "Oh, he really should be following the Premiere League."
There was other stuff that happened, but at that line I simply went red. That sort of response indicates the lowest type of American soccer fan, a Loyalist. Someone who thinks soccer belongs to the fathers of the sport in England and the other hotspots of Europe. These people often fall into two subcategories. Elitists, who would prefer the "highest quality" soccer and find those with less grace and class to be inferior (you'll find a good number of Manchester United fans here). Or Soccer Hipsters, who don't want the sport to gain traction in America, as it will make their interest in it seem commonplace and mainstream (these people shrink back like a vampire from the sun at the word "mainstream").
One of the worst parts about this particular incident is that the accused lives in Dallas! A city which already contains an MLS team (and one, I'm happy to say, which is actually doing quite well right now)! What a soccer fan from Orlando or OKC or any number of other places around the country wouldn't give to have an MLS team right in their backyard.
As American soccer fans, one of our biggest goals should be attempting to spread the sport in any way we can (shootout to the Free Beer Movement for all its work in this regard). We need to be patriotic in our love of the game, and at the very least acknowledge the teams and players we have playing within our borders, because when it comes time for the pinnacle of every soccer fan's existence, the World Cup, I'd hate to see any American fan of the sport come out with anything even resembling "I'm cheering for England to win it all."
So any of you out there who come across these non-believers in the American game, show them the errors of their ways. American soccer may not be the prettiest version of the game, or the most graceful, but it's ours. In my book, any game that begins with "O say, can you see?" is the best game of all.

Monday, February 18, 2013

City FC: Why the MLS Needs OKC More Than NYC Right Now

Stadium lightsPhoto by Leon Brooks

Before the internet becomes engulfed with talk about the current MLS season, I’d like to take a quick look forward to the ones that will follow. Specifically, the addition of expansion teams within the next few years. Many have heard that the MLS filed for trademarks on the terms “Empire FC” and “City FC” on August 27. When I heard this, I was ecstatic. The more I thought about it, the more I believed that these were meant to be two separate teams: One for New York (which I didn’t really care about) and one for Oklahoma City.

As time has gone by, however, it’s become clear that these are both meant to be used for one single team in New York. This represents a missed opportunity, and possible failure, for a league which has been recently hitting all of its marks in terms of growth and improvement. In terms of growing the sport in the United States and maximizing profit for the league, a team in Oklahoma City would be much more practical and effective.

New York is clearly struggling with one team. They were fourth last year in terms of growth percentage based on attendance with a -7% growth percentage, even though they were third in the East with the MLS’s second biggest star in Thierry Henri. They’ve had trouble filling the stadium, even though it was among the first soccer specific stadiums for the MLS.

New York is an already saturated market, with both the Red Bulls and the Cosmos drawing in fans (the Cosmos who are on their way to having a new soccer specific stadium themselves, and who hope to join the MLS within a few years). And land there is expensive and hard to come by. If the Red Bulls can correct their negative attendance trend, or if the Cosmos prove to have the base of supporters they claim they’ll be able to draw in (their supporters group already has 1,000 members) then maybe a second New York team will be possible. However, as it stands, there are a ton of other markets ripe for picking with ready support and easy money.

There are many such markets in the Southeast and Midwest. Orlando, for example, wish to have their new NASL team make it to the MLS by 2015. But one of the easiest markets with proven potential (not to mention a place I happen to live near for most of the year) is Oklahoma City.

Most would simply dismiss OKC as being squarely in “football country” and therefore not interested in other sports. These people are missing out on a wonderful opportunity for growth and expansion of the league.

Firstly, this would be the MLS’s chance to strike the iron while it’s hot in the middle of the country. The three biggest growth percentages over the last year came from teams in the middle of the country, the Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew, and the Chicago Fire. The other two teams in the region, FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City each saw growth of about nine percent as well. Oklahoma has two chapters of the US National Team supporters’ organization The American Outlaws, and both the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma State University soccer teams have reported rising attendance numbers over the last several years.

Oklahoma City has proven its ability to get behind a team with the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have drawn in an average crowd of 18,000 fans per game since they came to the city in 2008, and even through a dismal first two years. And this is a sport whose schedule competes directly with the giant that is American football. The MLS season has very minimal conflict with football’s schedule, and those games where it does are part of the playoff push and the MLS Cup Tournament, games which traditionally draw larger crowds.

The potential for gathering large crowds quickly and the availability of cheap, uncontested land makes OKC a great place for an MLS expansion. And there are other such markets throughout the South and Midwest. I’d hate to see the MLS take its first false-step of the past few years by attempting to oversaturate an already straining New York market and failing to recognize the potential elsewhere, so I hope they take the time to think through their options before rushing in to things. And I hope to own some Oklahoma City FC gear by the end of next year.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

2013: Do or Die for Soccer in America

It’s undeniable that soccer in America has made great progress over the last few years. It’s recently moved up to the second most popular sport among 12-24 year olds, outpacing basketball, baseball, and college football. Its top teams boast attendances better than any NBA team. The Seattle Sounders, for example, would rank 6th in the Premier League in average attendance, above Chelsea and just below Liverpool. People are beginning to perk up and watch SportsCenter when there’s a soccer highlight on the screen. A shirt supporting your local MLS club is netting you more and more random high fives from strangers. The sport is growing, and this year may be one of its most important years for soccer in since the arrival of Pele to the New York Cosmos.

It’s an empty summer and we’re on TV

This year there’s no mass competition to distract Americans when they turn on their televisions. There’s no Summer Olympics or election to cover. It’s a wide open schedule, but that doesn’t mean Americans will stop watching TV, they just need something new to watch. The deal to show the MLS on NBC, which started last year, was a big step in allowing mainstream American audiences the opportunity to watch domestic soccer without having to search around the specialty channels. And with the NBC pickup of the Premier League starting this fall can really give American audiences an opportunity to see experience mainstream soccer broadcasting in a way they have never been able to experience before. Good TV ratings will encourage the trend of soccer on American TV, which is a huge step for furthering the sport without having to make the trek out to your local stadium a couple of times a month.

To continue growth of the league post-Beckham

David Beckham is about the closest thing we had in America to a soccer superstar, who was known as a celebrity first and soccer player second. He was the only link between the MLS and many Americans. Galaxy away games would sell out because people wanted to see the one player in the league they know.  Now that Beckham has left, the MLS has to survive on its own soccer merits. Our supporters culture is growing, soccer-specific stadiums are being built, and even our main TV providers are showing games, all in order to generate interest in the league. Being the year before a World Cup, the league and those involved with it will be doing everything they can to combat the trend of declining attendance in the years before World Cups (like we saw in 2005 and in 2009). If we can keep the positive momentum of league growth going through this year which history says should be a poor year for the MLS, even after losing a star like Beckham, it’s a very good sign for the opportunity provided by next year.

To set up next year

If there’s anything America loves, it’s rooting for ourselves. If there’s another thing we love, it’s cheering for an underdog. Fortunately, World Cups afford us the rare chance to do both. First of all, we still have to qualify for Rio 2014, but if we do qualify (knock on wood right now as you’re reading this, just as I’m knocking while writing) then we really could be on the brink of a new, brighter day for soccer in America. The MLS saw attendance numbers rise in the years of the last three World Cups. Even the years after the last two, 2007 and 2011, brought two of the three largest percentages of growth in the history of the league. If all goes well (please, all of you, pray to something that we qualify) the league could grow in a way we’ve never before imagined in these next couple of years. Or it could completely fall apart and soccer never recovers in America and all of its fans go to see what lacrosse is all about (and immediately discover that it’s odd and not entertaining and give up on it almost before we’ve begun). But it all depends on this year. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why I'm Afraid of the Hex (And You Should Be Too)

Photo by Martin Poole

The all-important CONCACAF Hexagonal Qualifying Round for the 2014 World Cup will see each of the six teams play a home match and an away match against each of the other five countries. The top three in points at the end of the fixtures advance automatically to the World Cup next year in Brazil, with the fourth place finisher forced to fight for a spot with a country from Oceania. Scared yet? What if I told you that the other teams in the Hex are Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, and Panama? Now are you scared? No? Well then here’s a few more reasons for you to consider.

I Don’t Trust Klinsmann

Jurgen Klinsmann has some impressive results under his belt. Wins in Mexico and Italy highlight a pretty impressive record that includes the best calendar year for the USMNT in history. But the big wins are mitigated by the poor performances. A late long-ball helped us salvage a tie against Russia, which we were lucky to even get. We’ve played down to teams during away matches, like against Jamaica last year and against Honduras last week. We’ve had some truly beautiful performances under Klinsmann, but many make the point that as the ceiling rises, the floor should come with it. We’ve undoubtedly played better at some times than we ever did under Bradley, I’ll admit. But other times we’ve put out performances as rough as I’ve ever seen on a soccer field (and as someone who watched FC Dallas last season, that’s saying something). I don’t know which team is going to show up each match, and in a competition where we can’t afford to make too many mistakes we could find ourselves at the bottom of the table before this summer.

What is this team? And where is Donovan??

Landon Donovan is one of a few soccer names most Americans can name. He’s off doing some soul searching or whatever right now, and he couldn’t have picked a worse time for his sabbatical. We need him bad right now. Klinsmann’s long ball and lob pass strategy calls for a tactically skilled midfield corps. We have one of the best attacking midfielders in the game, and he’s taking a walkabout! The rest of the team looks lost without him. They spent most of their time in Honduras dragging their feet, refusing to pressure the ball, and letting themselves get beat. Graham Zusi is one of the most consistent recent performers for the team, and there was only so much he could do to right the ship coming off the bench. And when’s the last time Jozy Altidore scored a goal for the USMNT? Any guesses? It was back in 2011. He’s scored 5 goals in the last four years and who knows how many matches. He can only hit it if it’s served up on a platter, and then it’s sporadic. Put in Wondolowski. He’s hot, regardless of how he played in the trial matches earlier this year.

The MLS isn’t making things any easier

The matches you go to every weekend to drink and cheer and revel in the success of your hometown team. You know those? Well, they aren’t doing anything to help our country in the long run. Klinsmann is urging every American who can to go overseas. You know what the other CONCACAF squads are doing? Urging their players to fill the empty spots. The MLS is developing our own competition. The fans from Dallas will know it when we tune in on June 11 and see our beloved Blas Perez gunning for the netting behind Tim Howard (that is if Tim can stay in front of the net. Seriously Tim. Positioning is nine tenths of the battle.) Every team in the Hex except for Mexico started at least one player who currently plays in the MLS.  Honduras started four current MLS players against us, and look how that worked out for us. The MLS is a fantastic league and wonderful for spreading soccer culture within the United States, but when it comes to international qualifying it seems less like a blessing and more like a curse (notice I didn’t say it looked like a “hex” because this blog is classier than that. And when I tried it out it didn’t read well.)

Scared now?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Soccer: The Dirtiest Word You Can Say

I am an American soccer fan. And with that statement alone, I am able to aggravate the majority of people within this country, and perhaps even more abroad.

Domestically, we know that most people dislike soccer. We've seen our countrymen sneer in disgust when soccer highlights take up precious airtime on SportsCenter. It's just become a generally accepted fact in our culture that soccer isn't for Americans, and the few who dare to question why and defy the rule are greeted with eye rolls and shaking heads.

Internationally, we may fare even worse. The only things that make the contempt from overseas moderately bearable is that they have reasons to dislike us. The very word "soccer" is seen as an attempt to distance ourselves from the sport that almost every other country in the world calls "football"*. Another reason is how fed up the rest of the world has become with American hegemony. Soccer was one of a decreasing number of places where the world could look smugly down at our bumbling attempts at adequacy. But even this has been slowly chipped away by some American successes in recent years. As a Mexican fan described it in Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy, "When the Americans like something, they take it over."

As American soccer fans, we are not well liked. We are not fully understood. And we are absolutely not a significant voice domestically, or internationally. But we are growing, day by day. And this blog is meant to help facilitate that. "Soccer" may be a dirty word now, but us fans are continually finding new places to shout it, and new voices to add in the chant. Someday it will be sung with pride and well respected by people around the world. With our combined efforts, we are bringing that day closer.
One match at a time.

*Let me attempt to dispel this small matter once and for all by saying it's not our fault. We didn't invent the word "soccer". It's short for "association football" and was coined in England in the late 19th century. In fact, many other countries use variations on the term "soccer" to describe the sport, typically countries in which the name "football" had already been given to another sport, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and parts of Ireland.