John Feinstein Blog: U.S. Soccer Improvement Not Guaranteed

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SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 01: Tim Howard of the United States looks on in extra time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

USA soccer (Credit: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Now that all the screaming and yelling and partying and chanting has died down in the wake of the United States excruciating—but deserved—loss to Belgium in the World Cup’s round of 16, the question being asked by many is this: what next for American soccer?

My friend Ray Ratto, who writes for CSN-Bay Area wrote a column the other day saying it doesn’t matter what’s next for soccer and only blowhards will sit around and debate the question.

Ratto’s a lot smarter than I am (seriously) and I understand where he’s coming from. But, being the blowhard that I am—though not in the same class with most ESPN blowhards—I do wonder about where the sport will go from here—both on the field and in terms of genuine interest.

We all know that interest in the non-major sports ratchets up greatly when we have a chance to root, root, root for the home team—as in the U.S. No one, other than a sport’s geeks watched swimming (that’s my geek sport) or gymnastics or figure skating or curling (!!) except during the Olympics. Soccer certainly has a solid core of fans in this country but you aren’t going to see people hanging out in bars to watch MLS playoff games anytime soon.

So, with apologies to Ratto, let’s deal with the questions individually.

On-the-field: The U.S. lost in the exact same round in the exact same way (extra time) in 2014 as it did in 2010. That said, there’s been clear progress. The 2010 team barely made it through a very ordinary group before losing to Ghana, a mid-level team, much like the U.S. is a mid-level team. This time around, the U.S. got through what was called by most soccer people this year’s, “Group of Death,” and came within seconds of beating both Ghana and Portugal. That’s progress.

Then the Americans lost in extra time to Belgium in a game that showed how far they have come and how far they still have to go. The only reason the game was 0-0 after 90 minutes was because goalie Tim Howard was brilliant. On the other hand, goalkeeping is part of soccer—right?—and the U.S. could have stolen the game in the final minutes when Chris Wondolowski had a wonderful chance to score from right in front of the net.”

“Ninety-nine times out of 100 Chris buries that shot,” Landon Donovan, the star left off the team by Jurgen Klinsmann said afterwards.

This though was that 100th time and Belgium’s superior skill with the ball was ultimately the difference. The U.S. is good enough now to compete with Belgium and, most of the time, with the superpowers: Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Germany, France—not to mention Spain, Italy and England, all of whom went home after group play but are bound to be better in four years.

But can the U.S. hope to beat those teams? Yes—on occasion. But certainly not consistently enough to be a serious threat to actually win the World Cup. The U.S. has some very good young players. It also had eight players on this team over the age of 30. The notion that improvement is guaranteed in 2018 is naïve. It is certainly possible, but far from a lock.

As for the ‘soccer-fever,’ that broke out after the win over Ghana and lasted until the final whistle against Belgium? It was all good and it was fun. But it doesn’t mean that soccer is going to explode in the next four years or 10 years or 40 years in the U.S. In all likelihood it will continue to grow—slowly—and will have spasms like this one every four years because the World Cup is a huge event and the U.S. can now field a competitive team.

MLS isn’t going to be the best league in the world—or one of the five best—anytime soon. It will continue to produce solid teams playing in smaller stadiums with very loyal fans showing up to see their team play. The most famous players, at least for a while, will continue to be aging players from overseas looking to cash in on their fame when their skills have diminished. David Beckham was a perfect example of that.

But, as Ratto pointed out, Americans aren’t going to fall in love with a sport because they’re TOLD they should fall in love with it. That’s been an issue for a long time now, dating to the 70s, when the North American Soccer League dubbed itself, “the sport of the 80s,” only to be out of business by the mid-1980s because it over-reached.

MLS learned from that. It has built slowly and convervatively, controlling costs and not trying to claim that because soccer is the world’s sport it MUST become the U.S.’s sport. It has progressed steadily since its birth in 1996 and will no doubt continue to progress steadily.

That should be enough for everyone. Americans who want to see the world’s best leagues can regularly watch The English Premier League, not to mention La Liga, the Bundesligia, Serie A and The Champions League. When they want to see good—though not great—soccer in person, MLS is there. And now, every four years, they can get excited that the U.S. will go to The World Cup—it has now qualified every year since 1990—and field a team worth watching.

There’s no point analyzing where soccer fits in any further. It doesn’t have to be compared in popularity to hockey or golf or to the Big Three—football, basketball and baseball. Some would say the real Big Three are football, football and football, but that’s another story for another day.

Let’s just say soccer fits in. And every four years, before football training camps begin, a large chunk of the country catches soccer fever and rides it until the U.S. is eliminated. Then, we all turn our attention back to mid-season baseball, NBA free agency and, most of all, the start of NFL training camps.

The MLS plays on. Which is exactly as it should be.

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