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American Futbol: How Soccer is Breaking Through in America, and What We Can All Learn from It

Tonight, Major League Soccer holds its All-Star Game in suburban Philadelphia. A team of MLS stars team up to take on Chelsea, the reigning European Champions. The proverbial sport of the future in America (and Canada) has started to see significant breakthroughs in recent years. MLS is experiencing steady growth, summer tours of big European clubs are a smash hit, and TV ratings for major international competitions often impress. The question is, how did this happen? Soccer may or may not be the sport of the future, but for all the ridicule, it is clearly in the process of breaking through to the top tier of sports in North America. While still lagging football, baseball, and basketball, it is basically on par with hockey, considered the fourth big sport.

Even more encouraging is the support among a younger demographic. “Pro soccer” is slightly ahead of the NBA in second place amongst 12-24 year olds, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “avid” MLS fans has grown 250% since 2000. That graph also shows that more people are avid fans of international soccer, which is no surprise since that’s where the world’s best (Landon Donovan excluded) spend their peak years.

The trend for both domestic and international soccer in America is positive, which begs the question of how it happened. Below are a few factors I see contributing to its rise. There are lessons for all of us in our work from how the sport is making its presence felt.

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Preparing for the MLS All-Star game kickoff event outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art last Friday.

The Fan Experience
As an underdog taking on the established leagues, MLS has had to focus on creating a positive experience for fans, most of whom do not have the same loyalties to franchises or the sport itself as the big four enjoy. Aiding this has been the development of soccer-specific stadiums for 14 of 19 clubs, which optimizes the live viewing experience. Clubs like Sporting Kansas City are at the forefront of developing interactive, fan-friendly amenities at their home park.
It is the only major sport that embraces supporters’ clubs, which help drive support, and as Roger Bennett’s excellent feature explains, promotes rivalries like no other league.

Outside the park, it uses social media aggressively and effectively, and its MatchDay App features live streaming, and extensive highlights posted shortly after games finish, among other features.

Kids Play Soccer
As of 2010, more than 4 million kids under 14 played organized soccer, double the number from 1990. This creates a natural awareness and interest that doesn’t exist among someone whose never played – and may have a harder time understanding – the game. Events like hosting the 1994 Men’s World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup have further helped catalyze interest in the sport, both playing and watching.

Related to this, demographics have helped significantly, in particular the growth of America’s Hispanic population, who has long embraced soccer (both in the US and abroad). Soccer is by far the preferred sport among that demographic.

Technology and Globalization
The growth of cable and satellite television, and the internet, has facilitated being a fan of teams and leagues that are played outside your region, or abroad. Viewers can get up to the minute information over the internet, and watch games on a live stream, or on cable channels ranging from ESPN to Fox Soccer. Outside of the logistics of getting to watch a game in person (and the different times they air on TV), there’s very little difference between following Manchester United and the New York Yankees, for example, if you live outside each’s home market.

It also can’t be understated how little connection there actually is between being a fan and seeing a game live. At the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Dallas Cowboys COO Stephen Jones noted that less than 5% of declared NFL fans see a game in person in any given year.

The Local Connection Has Helped
Paradoxically, the local appeal of MLS clubs has also helped. The league’s creation happened to coincide with a period of time when the big four leagues were aggressively chasing additional revenue, often through relocation and/or building new stadiums. These new stadiums inevitably came with a greater focus on corporate clientele through features like hospitality suites, and a price increase for everyone’s ticket. This made it harder (and more expensive) for the average fan to attend a game.

I believe that with many fans priced out, an alternative like MLS became more appealing. Features like Supporters’ Clubs and soccer-specific stadiums have helped create a sense of community among fans.

The Minor League Experience
It’s undeniable that the quality of play (and players overall) in MLS lags behind the major European leagues, and will continue to for a long time (if not indefinitely). Yet, on some level, I see this working to MLS’ advantage. This, combined with passionate fans and cozy (~20,000) seat stadiums recreates the feeling one gets at events like minor league baseball. You feel a connection to the local club, and get to see a combination of up-and-coming stars (who will usually end up in Europe) and famous stars winding up their career (Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta, and David Beckham – to name three – all have decorated European careers).

Soccer – in particular MLS – has succeeded by carving out a niche (through careful expansion and the cultivation of friendly stadiums and strong fan-bases), gaining exposure and familiarity (largely through greater youth registration), and catering relentlessly to their fan/consumer base. It may not be the sport of the future, but it’s a big part of the sporting landscape in the present, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be for a long time.

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One Day in England

Tomorrow is the last day of the English Premier League season. As a Liverpool fan, I have to say thank goodness for that. But as a fan of the sport, I’ll miss what I consider the world’s best league. There are a number of important matchups, and battles for first place and Champions’ League spots, in addition to one spot in the relegation zone. All 20 teams play at the same time tomorrow – and the drama will surely be high. You can see the matchups here and current table here.

With that in mind, here is what’s at stake:

United-1
Flickr/Bob Singleton

The Title Race
With their victory in the Manchester Derby nearly two weeks ago, City took control of their destiny in the title race, drawing level with United on points, but holding the tiebreaker on a (probably) insurmountable goal difference. Both sides won last weekend, so the title remains up for grabs.

United will need a result at Sunderland; City hosts relegation-threatened QPR. Speaking of…

The Fight for Survival
Wolverhampton and Blackburn have been officially relegated to the Championship (second division), and Bolton is the strong favourite to join them. To avoid that fate, they need to win at Stoke, and have QPR lose at City. While the latter is a strong possibility, the Wanderers have no margin for error. If they draw, QPR would have to lose by at least 9 goals to wipe out their goal differential tiebreaker.

On that note, wins by Bolton and United, along with a QPR win (or draw) – would keep the Rangers up, and deny City the title – making for an all-time memorable final day. Were it not for my general reluctance to see good things happen to Sir Alex Ferguson, I would definitely be rooting for this outcome.

Top Four Turmoil
The top two (in some order) are set, as is sixth place (sorry, Chelsea!). Arsenal is in third, one point ahead of Tottenham, who in turn is one point ahead of Newcastle. The top four qualify for the Champions’ League (with fifth going to the decidedly less glamorous and lucrative Europa League). That is, unless sixth place Chelsea wins this year’s Champions’ League final against Bayern Munich next weekend, in which case they’d qualify at the expense of the fourth place team in spite of their record. Clear as mud? Okay then.

All three teams face difficult challenges:

– Arsenal visits West Brom, who upset them at Emirates last year, and will be playing for the last time under manager Roy Hodgson, who leaves to take the England job after this match. WBA is a tough matchup in any circumstance, so a result for the Gunners is far from guaranteed. A draw would guarantee them at least 4th place, though.
– Tottenham is at home against a tough Fulham team, who has beaten them in recent years, and could still finish as high as 7th depending on tomorrow’s outcomes.
– Newcastle visits Everton, who with a win will be assured of finishing 7th (and ahead of rival Liverpool…sigh).

Two teams fighting for the title, two for survival, and three for the one or two remaining Champions’ League spots. Tomorrow should be an exciting day to cap off this year.

One Golden Moment

A year ago today, what has, in retrospect, become one of my favourite soccer moments ever happened. I say in retrospect because I didn’t watch the game live, seeing a replay late at night, then watching the clip over and over again for the past 12 months.

The United States was matched up against Algeria in the final game of the group stage of the 2010 World Cup. Based on the result of the England-Slovenia match, which had just concluded, the US needed a win to advance. As the matches were running simultaneously, they likely didn’t know this for sure.

A Clint Dempsey goal early in the match was waived off on a dubious offside call. As the match approached the 90th minute, it remained deadlocked 0-0. Algeria, also needing a win to have a hope of advancing, had curiously played a very defensive style, as if they were content to eke out a draw, and call it a day.

Deep in injury time, Algeria shot on net, which was stopped by Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper. Howard then threw as perfect an outlet pass as I have ever seen to find Landon Donovan on the right wing near midfield to begin a basketball-style fast break. With the Algerian defense opened up, Donovan sprinted into the final third of the pitch, finding striker Jozy Altidore near the top of the box on the right hand side. Altidore crossed to Dempsey, who couldn’t get it by the keeper. With the ball sitting in the crease, Donovan, who had followed the play (like a trailing man in basketball crashing the boards), tapped it into the wide open net to put the American side up 1-0.

As Donovan sprinted to the corner to celebrate with his teammates, punctuating the play with a headfirst slide, Ian Darke – calling the game for ESPN – shouted the now famous line “go go USA!” (which, for months I thought was “goal goal USA!” – which would have also worked). Watch the play in its entire glory:

http://www.iviewtube.com/player/player.swf

There are a few reasons I love this play, and think it matters – and will continue to for a long time.

The Play Itself
I used a couple of basketball references earlier, and I think this points to a potential evolution – and contribution from the Americans – to soccer.

Unlike in places like Europe and South America where soccer has been the dominant sport for a century or longer, American soccer is catching up to sports such as football, baseball, and basketball. A potential contribution from Americans to the game may be to incorporate styles or types of play that can be adopted from other sports the players learn as kids. They’ll never reinvent the game in another sport’s image, and I would argue they need to adopt more European and South American practices on the pitch, but little plays here and there that they adopt from the schoolyard can add value to the game.

This was a basketball-style play, from the outlet pass to Landon Donovan crashing the boards (or crashing the net, to use a hockey term), for the finish. I wonder if kids from a country that doesn’t know the sport would ever create something similar.

The Redemption of Landon Donovan
Long derided as Landycakes for his decision to stay home, instead of sticking it out in the toughest European leagues (his struggles in the 2006 World Cup also didn’t help), Donovan redeemed himself in 2010, first with a successful stint on loan to Everton of the English Premier League, then with his excellent play in 4 World Cup matches. His goal against Slovenia sparked the US comeback from down 2-0 to draw (watch how the goalie recoils). I’ve always liked Donovan, starting with the buzz around him as a teenager in the late ’90s, and through his breakout performance in the 2002 World Cup. Seeing him redeem himself on soccer’s biggest stage was a tremendous moment. (As an aside, Joe Posnanski’s pre-World Cup profile of LD is a must read).

Even as Donovan’s career starts to hit a decline (he’s been out of the starting 11 for the past 2 Gold Cup matches), these moments will live on, contributing to his reputation as one of America’s great soccer players to date.

The Reaction

The moment went viral, spurred by a fan’s compilation of reactions from people and places around the world. It is shown again and again, popping up on best moments of 2010 lists, and US Soccer compilations.

A couple of the reactions seem forced, and probably were done in retrospect, but the vast majority show fans who are genuinely ecstatic, celebrating the moment as a communal event, and one of the biggest successes to date for their national team.

Anyone who thinks Americans don’t care about soccer needs to watch this video again and again. There has always been a following, and it has mushroomed in the past two decades. 2010, and Donovan’s golden goal, may yet be remembered as the moment American soccer fully crossed into the mainstream public’s consciousness.

The Context
It’s worth noting that the US were eliminated next match, in the round of 16, which as I noted last year, is probably about where they should have gone out. Yet the moment is still celebrated, as it was a victory of sorts for the side. To me, it shows an evolution in the consciousness of soccer fans. Other North American sports are seen as a winner take all event. NFL fans don’t celebrate or remember the moment where their team reached the playoffs or pulled off a big upset (unless a championship was at stake). Soccer is far less egalitarian, more accurately mirroring real life in that way. Different teams have different expectations, and likely always will. Simply making the World Cup is a victory for some. In league play, gaining promotion to the top division is the high water mark for many clubs. A victory over a top club may be remembered for years.

Even though the US went out in the first knockout round, this moment is in its own way one of the high water marks. It’s the second furthest the US has advanced (they made the Round of 16 in 1994, and the Quarterfinals in 2002), but it represented another step forward for them on the international stage. Long an underachieving, they came through in a situation where it mattered. Some day, should the US become a true soccer power, this moment might be forgotten by all but the fans who were following that day. But for the moment, it represents a beautiful thing in soccer, from the play, to the reaction, and will continue to resonate for soccer fans around the world.

The Bradley Effect

Fans of US Soccer have been following the drama of whether or not the Federation would renew the contract of Men’s National Team Manager Bob Bradley. With his contract set to expire at the end of this year, Bradley had been linked to the vacancy at Aston Villa in the English Premier League, or other possibilities in Europe. Meanwhile, US Soccer was said to covet former German national team player and manager Jurgen Klinsmann, the first choice who rebuffed the Federation in 2006, when Bradley was eventually hired.

All the drama came to an end yesterday afternoon, when Bradley inked a contract extension that will keep him at the helm of the Men’s team through the 2014 cycle. The drama is done, yet the debate is unlikely to subside soon. The issue of whether or not to keep Bradley has drawn strong arguments on both sides. I only started following the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) in the run-up to the World Cup, but here are my impressions on Bradley, and what his rehiring means going forward.

USA v Algeria World Cup Match
Photo by Jason Wojciechowski, under a Creative Commons 2.0 attribution license.


Meeting Expectations, Yet Missing Opportunity

The US exited in the Round of 16, where many observers figured they would. Yet, because of how the tournament shaped up, they missed a golden opportunity to return to the Quarterfinals, as they did in 2002, or go even further.

The match against Ghana was eminently winnable, and the US should have put it away in the second half. They were victim to one of Tim Howard’s few mistakes, leading to Goah’s strike in the first half, but had more than enough opportunities of their own. Had the US advanced, a Quarterfinal match against Uruguay would have given them a good opportunity through to the semi-finals. They would have been in very tough against eventual finalist Netherlands, but they were well-poised to equal or surpass their previous best finish – a trip to the Quarterfinals in 2002.

Bradley’s Lineup Decisions Deserve Scrutiny
Bradley made some controversial choices that may have cost his side a chance to advance further.

Returning to Ricardo Clark in the Ghana match was a costly error. Clark was removed after 30 minutes, and the early switch hurt the Americans in extra time. The team looked gassed, while Ghana had a few fresher players owing to the later substitutions. Bradley’s side, conversely, had made 2 substitutions by the start of the second half.

The decision to play Jonathan Bornstein for the Algeria and Ghana matches is questionable. Both are defensive-minded teams, and substituting a speedy, but not as defensively-sound player for the more steady Onyewu failed to produce any offense on one end, and created a liability on the other. As I’ll note in the next section, his reliance on weak strikers, instead of switching to a formation that played to his side’s strengths, was a major mistake as well.

Other Sides Suffered From Injuries As Well
The loss of Charlie Davies was particularly devastating, given how weak the side was at striker (as we found out). On the back line, Onyewu and DeMerit were recovering from injuries. But almost every side had injuries to contend with as well. Group stage opponent England was missing Rio Ferdinand, its key central defender. Ghana was without its best player, Michael Essien, one of the most complete midfielder in the world.

The injuries to the American side may expose a lack of depth, but the side also fell short in making adjustments. For the most part, Bradley kept Clint Dempsey on the wing and not at striker, despite having more depth in midfield, and Dempsey having had success there in the Confederations Cup. Playing a 4-5-1 or moving Dempsey up front in a 4-4-2 would have played to the team’s strengths. Instead, second-rate strikers like Robbie Finley and Herculez Gomez started games. They came out in favour of extra midfielder Benny Feilhaber in every match but the England one, but still too much time was given to them and Edson Buddle in the first place. Talented mid Jose Torres only saw one half of action, and DeMarcus Beasley, while coming off an injury, saw only a handful of minutes.

Coincidentally or not, the side played much better in the second half of its games when Finley and Gomez had been removed.

Like Tito, But With Less Talent to Work From
Of the Managers/Coaches in sports that I follow, the one he reminds me of the most is Terry Francona, the current Manager of baseball’s Boston Red Sox. Francona gets along with his players (his hiring was key to acquiring Curt Schilling in 2003), manages the team well, but is not a master strategist or motivator, as best as anyone can tell. Most likely, his teams will play to their level of ability, not much above, or much below. A two-time World Series champion (2004 and 2007), Francona’s Red Sox have been one of the most talented squads in the majors year-in and year-out. Leaving aside his excellent job managing an injury-laden team in 2010, Francona’s clubs have generally played to their level of talent. Could he have guided a less talented team to a World Series? Probably not.

A Perfectly Good Manager for a Perfectly Good Side
If I were to sum up this situation in one sentence, that would be it. Bradley is a fine manager, with obvious strong points (his players like and respect him), and obvious drawbacks (he made many questionable personnel decisions in the World Cup).

The same can be said for the USMNT. For all the progress it’s made in the past two decades, and the success it’s earned, it remain, on the world level, a perfectly good team. Not a great team, mind you. It may pull off an upset over a top side, like beating Spain in the ’09 Confederations Cup, but they can’t realistically expect to compete with, never mind defeat, the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, or Spain on a regular basis. A top 20 team in the FIFA World Rankings, Team USA is very good, but not elite. In other words, the kind of team that should qualify for the World Cup regularly, and occasionally make noise in the knockout round.

In Need of a ‘Miracle’
One of the most famous moments in sports is the ‘Miracle on Ice‘, where the United States’ men’s hockey team defeating the Soviet Union on their way to winning gold at the 1980 Olympics. It’s story is told in the eminently enjoyable 2004 film ‘Miracle‘, starring Kurt Russell as the team’s head coach Herb Brooks.

I don’t know how much of Russell’s portrayal is fact and how much is fiction, but the parallel of the 1980 team is apt for anyone with high aspirations for the USMNT. It would be a ‘miracle’ of sorts if the United States were to win the World Cup in the next couple of cycles.

Soccer may be the world’s game, but it’s dominated by a handful of sides, a couple of South Americans (Brazil, Argentina), and a number of Europeans (Italy, Germany, Netherlands, France, and now Spain). It’s rare for a side outside the dominant group to make it all the way to the finals. A handful of countries in recent tournaments have made it all the way to the semi-finals (Bulgaria and Sweden in ’94, Croatia in ’98, Turkey and South Africa in ’02, once-dominant Uruguay in ’10, after a 40 year absence from the final four). These countries have tended to ride home-field advantage, a dominant player in the tournament, or be aided by a weak draw. Eventually, they run into a dominant side. The only tournament where a Cinderella has gone all the way was the 2004 European Championship, where Greece came away with the trophy after disappointing years from several traditional powers. None of these sides has replicated it’s success since.

Until the team boasts world class players on the same level as those on the Brazil, Dutch, Spanish, and German sides, the USMNT would need the following to go deep, or to win the tournament:

1. A favourable draw.
2. Some of the dominant sides to have an off-year.
3. An upset over at least one heavily favoured side.
4. A manager who, as a master tactician and/or motivator, can help the side outperform its talent level.

A 5th, home field advantage, would be a huge asset as well.

In the absence of these conditions, the USMNT can likely expect to remain right in the range of where they’ve performed the past few World Cup cycles. Bradley has shown tactical skills, making solid half-time adjustments this World Cup, and guiding his team to much success in the lead-up. However, he still makes questionable decisions that force these adjustments in the first place. He may not be a master, but who of the alternatives is?

The USMNT continues to make strides, and to become a much more successful side on the international level. But it’s also at least a couple of cycles away from being a truly world class side. Changes in how the country develops players and streamlines them towards elite programs will likely precipitate any sustained success on the world stage.

As for Mr. Bradley, his side will be in transition as it prepares for the 2014 World Cup cycle. His side is flush with talent in goal and at midfield, but could face the same challenges at Striker, especially if Charlie Davies doesn’t return to full strength. The back line will be almost all, if not entirely new, and 2010 stars such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey may no longer be at their peak (though some, like Michael Bradley, should be).

As it stands, the US will put forward a perfectly good side, with a perfectly good manager, and is likely staring at another perfectly respectable result in 2014. With or without Bradley, that’s the side’s fate for the foreseeable future, barring a ‘miracle’, or a serious jump in the quality of the country’s player development.