Soccer Deserves Close Scrutiny in U.S.
By John Gilbert
World Cup Gains Intense Interest in U.S. In the Duluth area, we have hiking and biking and fishing and boating to call summer sports, plus some dirt-track auto racing augmenting the area’s slim baseball/softball scene that bolsters our Twins-from-afar interest. We also have weather watching, which has been at its most spectacular this particular year.
Sports aren’t the only spectator spectacles in these here parts. We also are blessed with a spectacular Fourth of July full of picnics, parades, and fireworks, plus a wonderful music scene. The week before Fourth of July was a perfect example, with the band Trampled by Turtles headlining a four-band show at Bayfront Park. It was there that Mother Nature played some tricks. The thunderstorm that rolled in from the southwest featured a lightning show that would have made Fourth of July proud. The lightning forced Duluth-based Trampled by Turtles to curtail their show after only three or four songs, but the decision followed to open Amsoil Arena to shelter the big crowd. We weren’t inside long enough to dry out, but the show did resume — in the rain — and the TbT speedgrass lads played hard until nearly 11:30 in a memorable show, for the fans and the band.
Concert-watching isn’t a sport, but it is a spectator event, and while there is no law that says concerts can’t be held in nice weather, it would be nice if it could happen. My reason for mentioning spectator events is that we’re told that Slingbox, a device that allows fans to watch and control their tv sets by computers and smartphones, claims it can prove that World Cup soccer fans are more fanatical than fans of other mainstream sports in the U.S. The claim is that soccer fans are four times more fanatical than NBA fans, 21 times more fanatical than NHL fans, and 11 times more fanatical than golf fans.
The flaw is that the 100,000 fans surveyed showed 18.1 percent of soccer fans tuned in to World Cup play, while only 4.5 percent of basketball fans tuned into the NBA finals, 1.7 percent tuned into the U.S. Open, and only 0.9 percent of fans tuned in to the Stanley Cup finals. The survey doesn’t tell us how intense any of these fans are. Maybe only the intense soccer fans got soccer on their Slingboxes, but maybe the intense fans in other sports found other ways to watch their favorite sports, such as on live tv.
We aren’t going to make such outrageous and easily disproved claims for soccer, but the sport has made important gains in our sensibilities. The World Cup is still to be decided, although it’s over for the U.S., which makes it much more interesting to see how many U.S. sports fans tune in to watch the climactic part of the tournament now that the U.S. is not in the running.
There is no doubt that U.S. sports fans have watched soccer more than ever before, and the last two U.S. games were the most-watched soccer games in this country’s history. If you watched any of the games, you had to come away completely impressed with the skill level of the world’s finest players. If you didn’t, then we can give you a brief test. You may think that, in your day, you were quite the baseball-football-basketball-hockey player. Pick one, and realize the importance of hand-to-eye coordination. If you were a decent baseball or basketball player, you could still go out and play a mean game of catch, or shoot a few hoops.
Now take a soccer ball out in the yard. You can be all alone. In fact, it might be preferable to be alone just for the sake of avoiding embarrassment. Start kicking the ball around, but do it with an objective, such as controlling the ball as you run from one end of your yard to the other. It’s a lot like stickhandling in hockey, with one important tradeoff: In hockey you use a stick on the puck but as in all other U.S.-based sports, you have hand-to-eye coordination; in soccer you have no hand-to-eye coordination. None. You get to test your foot-to-eye coordination. It won’t take long to realize how much more difficult a sport is when you can’t use your hands.
In baseball or basketball, you use your hands to throw and catch, but in soccer you only get to use your feet. Oh, you can use the rest of your body too, but only when the ball inadvertently hits you and you block it ahead — but not with your hands. As you’re running back and forth across your yard, you might get so you can control the ball fairly well in, say, 15 or 20 minutes. Trouble is, you also realize how difficult it is to run and keep running for 15 or 20 minutes, never mind controlling the ball as well.
In baseball, unless you’re pitching or catching, you get to stand motionless for about 90 percent of the time you are in the field. In basketball, you can play as hard as you want, but you will be forced to stop and stand still every time there is a free throw to be shot, or every time you get to one end of the floor and have to wait to find someone to defend. Football, of course, has its 30 seconds of huddle for every 6 seconds of slamming into each other. Hockey is the closest thing to perpetual action, except that you get to go to the bench — or penalty box — for moments or minutes of rest.
In soccer, you can take a few seconds off to walk or patrol your position without running your hardest, but you have to be on call the whole time, ready to burst into full speed whenever the ball comes to you or a teammate, or to an opponent when you’re in the vicinity of defending. The next layer up from being able to control the ball with your feet while running is to gain the skill to zig and zag around a defender, to be aware of where all your teammates are so you can pass to them, and then make that pass, hard and accurately — possibly leading a running teammate, or passing ahead to a void, which is an unpopulated area that your teammate may get to first if you pass the ball there. Of course, using your head in soccer is important in being a smart player, but using your head, physically, is also a key, because players blocking or redirecting passes with their heads is a pivotal part of playmaking and scoring.
When all of the skills and stamina are grouped together in a cohesive unit, soccer can be very fulfilling to watch. I found myself watching several games the last week or so, and I can’t even remember all the teams I saw play. I did see one great game that ended up 0-0, and it was filled with impressive plays and the occasional scoring chance, even though I was left with a haunting feeling that I had watched a couple hours of compelling television but nothing was accomplished. That’s the problem with U.S. sports fans. We have luxuriated in so much instant gratification from goal-scoring bursts in hockey, from high-scoring games in football, baseball and basketball, that we can easily become bored with a 1-0 hockey game, a 7-3 football game, or a defense-oriented 64-60 basketball game. But we generally don’t admit it.
We do, however, grumble and complain if we have to watch a soccer game that might be 0-0 or 1-0 for being boring. Trouble is, that says more about our impatient need for instant gratification than it does about the skill level of two soccer teams that are as good at defense as they are at offense. I heard a guy on the radio on Tuesday say that “If the U.S. keeps winning,” they’ll get more soccer fans than ever to become infatuated.” Now, this guy should know better, but the U.S. wasn’t about to “keep winning.” The U.S. lost 2-1 to Belgium, with all the goals coming in extra time at the end of a regulation 0-0 draw and was eliminated in the first game of the final 16. Before that, the U.S. lost 1-0 to Germany, tied Portugal 2-2, and beat Ghana 2-1. That victory over Ghana, then, was the only victory won by the U.S., and yet the competitiveness of the round-robin competition made so-called sports experts claim that the U.S. is winning, and might keep winning.
One victory in four games is hardly reason to claim a dynasty, but there is no question soccer moved closer to the respect it has long deserved in the U.S.
We can agree that ESPN is doing an impressive job of broadcasting the World Cup soccer matches from assorted cities in Brazil. What I would like to see is ESPN compiling a series of, say, 20 spectacular plays from each day’s games, and then play them back for all to see in a highlight video. The action seems slow at times in soccer, but when there is a great play, it happens so suddenly it’s hard to trace. Then you get slo-mo, and see the play unfold. When the U.S. lost to Germany, the scoreless draw was broken by a German goal that met all the criteria for being spectacular. Fellow with the ball carried up the left side, and sent a hard crossing pass to a teammate, who was cutting right to left in front of the goal. Running at full stride, there was no chance to adjust for the pass, so the receiver kept running. As the pass got to him, he took a stride with his right foot, and left his trailing left foot behind to deflect the pass off his left foot, through his own legs, and into the goal.
There are dozens of outstanding plays in every game, but you have to watch closely to catch them. When the U.S. advanced to the round of 16, goaltender Tim Howard was the only reason the U.S. took Belgium to a scoreless draw through regulation. When they go to extra time and overtime, it is a timed period and not sudden-death. Belgium scored two outstanding goals on Howard, who made 16 saves — a World Cup record over the last 50 years — as Belgium outshot the U.S. 27-9 overall and 16-4 in shots that got through to be on goal. Howard’s 16 actual saves broke the 1978 record of 13, and will probably stand for a few decades itself.
The goal of the game, however, came from this Green kid, a 19-year-old from the U.S., who broke through the defense for a high lob pass coming from behind. Now, imagine running toward the goal, and a pass coming from behind you. Green looked over his shoulder, reached his right leg back, and as the ball arrived, he somehow kicked forward, and amazingly got his foot on the ball and redirected it off the Belgian goalkeeper’s fingertips and into the net. The U.S. lost 2-1, with all three goals coming in added time.
Let’s see those plays, aligned end to end, and show them as the top ten soccer plays of the day.
Boomer Esiason has advanced from NFL quarterback to television football analyst and now to radio sports editorialist. After Rafael Nadel beat Novak Djokovic in the French Open finals on clay, we were all impressed. We might have been a bit surprised when Wimbledon came along and Djokovic was seeded No. 1. Ol’ Boomer came on before the tournament began and ripped the seeding system, claiming that Nadal was the best and deserved the No. 1 seed.
A little investigation proved that while Nadal has been unbeatable on clay, where he wins the French Open with almost monotonous regularity, he has had almost the opposite lack of success on grass, and has won only twice at Wimbledon. It made sense for the elite minds at Wimbledon to do what they did. Suddebly, Rafael Nadal was upset in four sets by Nick Kyrgios, an Australian 19 year old. He outplayed Nadal, preventing us from seeing what might have been an epic match with Nadal against Roger Federer, with that winner perhaps taking on Djokovic.
Dj0kovic and Federer put down the upsetters and made it to the final, where they put on an epic battle. Federer won in a tie-break, then Djokovic won two close sets, and had match point in the fourth, before Federer seemed to summon up extra strength to come from 2-5 and win 7-5. That sent it into a climactic fifth set, where Djokovic survived a classic battle to earn the trophy. I hope Boomer was impressed.
Hockey Fans Get Vanek
The Minnesota Wild drafted for the future, adding a couple of USA Development team Americans, three Canadian junior prospects, and one each from Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. Then general manager Chuck Fletcher signed Thomas Vanek as a free agent sniper.
Vanek is a familiar form to UMD hockey fans. Born in Austria, he grew up to skate two years for the University of Minnesota, leading them in scoring and to an NCAA title before signing to turn pro. He played with Buffalo and then Montreal this past season. As a pure goal-scorer, Vanek is the top available free agent. But I have less enthusiasm for the move than some of my Gopher-fan friends from the Twin Cities.
The Wild has a fantastic but delicate chemistry, built by coach Mike Yeo, and it is a chemistry that requires everybody to skate hard and fit in to a defensive-responsibility-first philosophy before slipping away to be a sniper. I have never heard anyone accuse Vanek of being a dedicated backchecker or checker. And while he is a true goal-scorer, the Montreal Canadiens demoted Vanek right in the heat of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for not engaging, not getting involved, not hustling and working. My point is that the Wild finished an impressive playoff run with everybody working together, not seeming to care who got the goals, and third and fourth line players contributing as much as first and second liners.
Presuming everybody gets healthy over the summer and reports for training camp at full speed, the new young players should make another giant step toward taking over the offensive nucleus of the team. I believe that without making a single move, the Wild would be a contender in the division, the conference, and the league.
The Twin Cities media, however, anticipated, expected, and virtually demanded a major free-agent signing to bolster the team’s scoring from this past season. Vanek seems to fill the bill perfectly, and we can hope he does. We can also hope that a gifted scorer who has never been known as a checker/worker/hustler can come back to Minnesota and overcome all those shortcomings, instead of disrupting the delicate chemistry currently enjoyed by the Wild.