Another Loss, Another Win

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard

The USA is out of the 2014 World Cup. While their run was a success it seems that the American media still doesn’t get it. While they celebrate the efforts of the team, and in particular goalkeeper Tim Howard, they still ask the question, ‘will soccer ever be big in America?’

Very quickly on Team USA. Back to back appearances in the road of 16 is something to be proud of. While the argument can be made that the US should have gone deeper into the tournament it is clear that the team continues to get better each and every World Cup. Yes, Howard was amazing against Belgium but do not overlook the work done by Matt Besler, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckermann and Fabian Johnson. Add in youngsters like Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin contributing like they did and things are looking up for the Gold Cup and the next round of World Cup qualifying not to mention 2018.

Yet from CBS to ESPN, media anchors and producers continue to bang the drum and remind people that soccer isn’t the NFL, but it’s big in the rest of the world. They also ask the question, ‘what will it take for soccer to be big in America?’ It already is folks.

How? Lets take some metrics. While we didn’t painstakingly go back and count how many live shots there were from Brazil or how many mentions of the World Cup or Team USA there were across all the media outlets, the fact is that there was a lot. Most of those mentions were positive too.

Then there are the ratings. Some 23 million Americans watched the USA v Belgium match on TV and online Tuesday afternoon. That doesn’t count group events like bars, offices, and the thousands that showed up at viewing parties like the one at Soldier Field. 

Yet outlets and pundits continue to doubt. Keith Olbermann the other night on his show complained that American’s should use American terminology and not a traditional soccer vocabulary. He went as far as claiming that while Ian Darke is great, soccer will not be accepted in this country because there is not an American announcer. Guess Olbermann missed the 2006 World Cup when American fans rebelled against American announcer Dave O’Brien for his inexperience and poor performance.

Olbermann

Olbermann will get his wish though in the next World Cup when the broadcast rights switch over to Fox which will use Gus Johnson as their main announcer.

It is clear that soccer is making it in America. The viewership shows that. The media that is doubting it shows that. Is it the NFL? Of course not but nothing is. Not MLB, NBA or the NHL. Some telling signs to look for in the future include attendance and ratings of MLS games over the next few seasons. In part two we’ll dive into why the media and the non soccer community in general continue to ask these questions.

How Stars Got Their Shine Back

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

Saturday had a slew of sports on tap. From the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) in Gold Cup play to baseball to Canadian Football. Two people in particular stood out on Saturday. Two former players whose stars have diminished recently, Landon Donovan and Tim Lincecum.

Landon Donovan

Early in the day Landon Donovan helped lead the USMNT to a 4-1 win over Cuba and helped lock up a spot in the next round of the Gold Cup. Donovan got the US on the board after nailing a stoppage time penalty kick at the end of the first half. It was his second goal in as many games. He also has two assists.

Timmy Lincecum

Tim Lincecum is not the same pitcher that won back to back Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009. He has lost some of his velocity off of his fastball and has struggled to keep his ERA below 4 runs a game in the last two years. However Saturday night he made baseball history by becoming the 218th player to throw either a no hitter or a perfect game. While perfect games are rarer than no hitters it is an exclusive club none the less. It was the first of his professional career and he threw some 148 pitches in the process which is unheard of in this day and age.

Both of these players have a long road to haul to regain that dominance they once had in their respective sports. But they are evolving. Donovan is becoming more of a complete player on the pitch and Lincecum into a veteran starting pitcher who is learning how to out smart hitters as opposed to overpowering them.

The question now becomes, can they capitalize on this recent run of success and transform themselves into the veteran winners that their teams need them to be. It’s a tall order for two men who have reached the pinnacle of their sports already.

FIFA Chief Bashes MLS

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Sepp Blatter is the head of FIFA which is the world governing body of football (or soccer). He recently laid the wood to MLS in a recent interview on Al Jazerra TV. While Blatter has been the head of FIFA since 1998 and no doubt has a tough job he obviously has no idea about how to do business in North America.

Sepp Blatter on Al Jazeera

In North America, the MLS competes with the following sports for attention, space and airtime; NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL (When they play), College Football, and Mixed Martial Arts. That’s a pretty good set of competition. No other country in the world has that much competition and in every other country, except a few, football is the 800 pound gorilla. Not so in North America. That title belongs to the NFL or football as it’s called here.

Blatter said that it’s been 18 years since the US hosted the World Cup and still does not have a strong professional league. In that time the MLS was formed and launched. It has expanded to 19 teams with 14 of those playing in their own soccer specific stadiums. Another team moving into it’s own stadium in the next year (San Jose) and the 2 others that share stadiums with professional football teams (Seattle and Vancouver). These last 2 teams also rank 1st and 6th in attendance respectively.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber is a very smart guy. He came from the NFL so he knows what MLS is up against. He knows that MLS could not survive if it went to the normal FIFA schedule which is from August-May and competed directly with the NFL, NBA, College Football and NHL. He also knows, and has said in interviews, no one is going to go to a New England Revolution game in Foxboro, MA in January or February. They barley go right now during the summer (they are also one of the teams without a soccer specific stadium). MLS’s best bet is to keep it’s current schedule, take on Major League Baseball during the summer and the occasional UFC event.

Blatter does not understand that. He has a one size fits all mentality. While he wants the game to succeed he does not understand how to do that in North America. Don Garber does. We can only hope that Blatter takes Garber up on his offer to go to an MLS match the opening weekend of the season. The word “hope” might be a stretch here too considering that Blatter has dismissed the use of goal line technology, replay and has been accused of corruption charges more times than…well probably anybody.

But we can always hope.

MLS’s Bigger Problem

The LA Galaxy won their fourth MLS Cup this past weekend in what will be David Beckham’s final game with the team and possibly with MLS. While this is a very big deal, not just for the league but also for the team, the possible loss of America’s best player, Landon Donovan looms as an even bigger loss.

DONOVAN

Donovan has now won five MLS Cups. He is the all time leading goal scorer for the US National team and is the unequivocal face of American soccer. Now he may have played his last game ever at the age of 30. If Donovan decides to call it a career it will not only be a loss for the Galaxy but also for MLS, the national team and for American soccer as a whole.

Years ago Donovan turned down the part-time (but well paying work) of playing for a European club to play in MLS and in particular for the Galaxy. It was a great coup for MLS having America’s best player choose to play at home and help build the league. He hasn’t disappointed. He even has the best selling MLS jersey for an American and third most popular behind Beckham and New York’s Thierry Henry.

Donovan’s departure from soccer would be an unexpected blow to the growth of soccer in American. While there are several possible replacements none have reached his level of success and those who have come chose play overseas.

If you look at the Galaxy in particular his lost would be bigger then the loss of Beckham. While Beckham is a brand name that reaches beyond soccer, sports, and into pop culture, Donovan provides so much more on the pitch. His ability to score, set up teammates, stretch the defense makes him a player you always have to account for. The minute you don’t, well you can just look for the ball in the back of the net. 

The Galaxy, MLS and the US National team have some interesting times in front of them. They want him back but at what point do you reach out to him. Too soon and you might drive him further away. Too late and you may never be able to get him back. The timing has to be just right. We should all hope they reach him at just the right time.

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