Americans Taking to Soccer is as Painful and Thrilling as the Game Itself

By David Rice 6/24/14

Soccer is on the tip of the nation’s tongue and at the center of its thoughts and it’s every bit as fantastic as you might have hoped. That one time every four years when nearly every American actually turns on the beautiful game and tunes their minds toward understanding it is in full swing, World Cup fever is real.

That said, it’s sometimes a painful process to watch as Americans wrap their mind around it and every sports personality on television, radio or print has to attempt putting together a piece or series of pieces that explain the game to Americans in our own terms so to speak. You’ll hear lots of bogus, nonsensical comparisons to every other sport and you’ll hear lots of recycled lines of print like, “we don’t understand this in America because…..” The other day, I heard a local radio spot that in very kindergarten like fashion explained soccer terms and the magnitude of the World Cup, as if the name World Cup didn’t imply that it’s f***ing huge.

Problem is, the guys playing armchair analyst now are more often than not, someone who covered some soccer in college if you’re lucky. Most of the time they know only slightly more than the guy at the bar who just can’t understand how added time works. But hey, at least most everyone has figured out offside now that ESPN provides them with a nice little line across the field.

But it’s okay, because it’s all a part of the process of creating new fans of the sport, which is always fun. This is what makes the World Cup special. It’s the biggest moment in the country’s soccer conscience.

Jurgen Klinsmann said recently that he wants the national team to be the engine that drives American soccer forward. Well, it appears to be doing just that. Stores are running out of USA jerseys and bars are filled to capacity on match day. Soccer is bigger than ever before in this country and a bit of success on Thursday could push it even further.

But with all the new interest comes a lot of moments of, and I hope this doesn’t sound any more condescending that it has to be, confusion and stupidity from the new found soccer lovers and once every four year casuals. If you’ve been outside over the last 11 days, you’ve probably heard someone say these things or similarly stupid things and wanted to rip your own eyelashes out.

  1. Michael Bradley sucks.

Eh hem…. No, seriously, Michael Bradley is one of the best players in this squad. At Roma, the Italians called him “The General” thanks to his domineering presence in midfield. He was successful in Germany and Holland as well and after eight years with the national team, has put in enough gritty tackles and provided enough quality balls forward to earn both our patience and admiration. In the qualifying rounds leading up to the 2010 cup as well as this one, Bradley was a key piece to our success. In the previous World Cup, his presence was massive. Admittedly, he has not had an excellent tournament this summer, but we need to give him time to adjust to playing an attacking role.

This is not basketball, where LeBron James can assume the point guard duties with relative ease. Going from a holding midfield role to playing behind the striker(s) as a sort of third attacker is a big adjustment. The sense of positioning, timing of the runs, and the amount of work it takes to track back fifty yards before then sprinting the entire length of the pitch as part of a counter attack is much different than the win the ball and redistribute role he was in for so long. It isn’t unusual to see a player struggle with such a switch as the work rate required from him increases dramatically and the emphasis on his efficiency is blown completely out of proportion.

Bradley has done the right things, shown the right character over time. People saying he has only ever been a player in the team because his dad was the coach before Klinsmann have clearly not watched enough of this man’s play. Bradley can turn things around and will. Yes, he’s struggling, but he’s exactly the kind of player that can break out of it in a big moment and there is no better chance for that than this Thursday.

  1. Nobody knows when the game is going to end.

You hear this every four years. Americans whining about the added time and how it is arrived at is a bit comical considering many watch baseball where the game is not over until the last out is made. All you need to know here is, the game does not end until the final whistle.

It’s kind of like the rest of your life in that sense. It is not rigidly timed into perfect segments so that you can be sold another six pack before the bottom of the hour. It is not made for buzzer beaters or the drama of timeouts, although strangely we did just see both of these things happen in the last match. This fact merely underlines the unpredictability of soccer. Embrace it, love it, it’ll drive you wild, like a goody two-shoes who drank the wrong punch before prom.

And by the way, it’s not that hard to figure out when the game is going to end. When ninety minutes comes, the referee will signal to the fourth official who puts a number on the board. It represents compensation for time spent attending to injured players, substitutes, goal celebrations and excessive time wasting. That doesn’t mean it’s a carefully timed five minutes, but somewhere around five minutes he’ll blow the final whistle, so long as it doesn’t rob someone of a goal scoring opportunity. But why waste your breath on these long winded explanations for what basically amounts to, you play til the final whistle blows and that will be somewhere near the time needed to make it a full and meaningful 90 minutes.

The reason the United States lost on Sunday was not because the fourth official added a minute or because Graham Zusi took too long to get off the pitch. It’s because the team had a mental lapse at the end of a difficult game and didn’t finish it properly. They didn’t hold tight until the final whistle and that is how the game goes, you get punished quickly and unsympathetically for break downs like that at this level.

  1. Ties suck.

First off, why? Is everything in your life so black and white? No. Some days, your life didn’t suck, but it wasn’t fantastic either. It was somewhere in the middle. In fact, I’m willing to bet most days of your life are exactly like this. Did you get everything you wanted? No, but you probably got something, which is more than some people can say. Undoubtedly, some people did lose today, but it wasn’t you. A draw is actually the perfect metaphor for an average American life.

No overtime? No! Why would there be? It’s like work. You fail to complete the task by deadline, you are left with what you have. There is something strikingly real and yes in some ways painful about a draw. But a hard fought draw, a real butt clincher like the other night, is both thrilling and, for at least one side, rewarding (in this case for Portugal).

Draws make things interesting. They create new mathematical scenarios and in the case of the other night, they tug at your heart strings when you see the look of disappointment on the players faces. This is what makes soccer what it is, an emotional thrill ride and a painfully real reminder that things don’t always go your way, especially if you don’t put in the right amount of work.

Lastly, I’ll say this for draws. Have you ever seen a baseball game go 17 innings, last over six hours and by the end have nothing but 50 men and a service dog in the crowd? At some point, a draw is a perfectly acceptable result to a sporting contest.

  1. There is no action unless there is a corner or free kick.

I’ve heard this one a few times lately. This is a result of having a sporting culture centered around timeouts and framed moments. Media jackass Dan Shaughnessy always likes to say that there is no build up to a score in soccer, which shows that he has either never watched a game or just doesn’t want to have to write about anything new. There is often a ton of buildup, just no one stops to tell you it’s building, because it could very well lead to nothing. That’s once again the unpredictability of the game itself.

There is a ton of action elsewhere on the pitch. The problem is that without commercial breaks, huddle breaks or timeouts, soccer requires you to watch continuously over a two hour span rather than wait for framed moments inside a four hour span like Americans have been conditioned to do. I say this not to sound like one of those soccer soapbox guys, just as someone who watches a lot of sports and realized some time ago that soccer simply moves at a much faster pace and requires you to sharpen your focus on the game and its tactics.

The person who says this is usually talking through half of the match, taking selfies for Facebook so they can say they watched the match somewhere in public or ordering a hamburger in the 85th minute in the middle of the corner kick they’ve been waiting so long to see.

  1. MLS players aren’t good enough to play at this level.

Sadly this one comes from soccer people too. You know the type, they watch all the European leagues and will cheer on Brazil just as soon their social obligation to the United States is over. They have an opinion on Major League Soccer, yet have no idea how many teams are actually in the league or who won last year’s title.

And now, some of the casuals who have been hearing this from that guy for so long and don’t actually know where the players make their money assume this about the current lineup. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of the players in last Sunday’s starting lineup, six of them are MLS players. One of the five who isn’t, Geoff Cameron, is a product of the Houston Dynamo whose time under Dominic Kinnear turned him into the player that he is, someone that England’s Stoke City has embraced over the last year.

Add to that another five players from MLS off the bench and nearly half the World Cup squad is comprised of players making their living and grabbing Klinsmann’s attention from right here in America. Many of these players are major factors in the team’s success. I know it would be too much to ask these folks to tune in for the qualifying matches and friendlies that pave the road to the World Cup, but if they did they would see matches where almost the entire squad is comprised of MLS players and to their surprise would also see that those squads are successful.

In total, the league sent 31 players away to the preliminary squads that were shaved down to 23 man rosters. Four goals have been scored by Major League Soccer players in the tournament, meaning MLS has more World Cup goals under it’s belt that the Dutch, Brazilian and Russian leagues thus far and is equal to Mexico and Portugal’s league players. To say the least, these guys are professionals and they are good enough to play at the highest level. And if this World Cup ends with the U.S. having made an appearance deeper in the tournament than an obligatory Round of 16 game, or even just the top of this ridiculous group we were drawn into, it ought to be seen as a measure of success for the league.

In the end, I suppose this is the cost of bringing soccer to mainstream America. It's something I'm actually excited about and grateful for, but the amount of baggage the media carries over it happening and the reaction of people new to the game is all a bit, well, ridiculous. 

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