Labor Day has come and gone, the sun is setting earlier, and, even here in Houston, the air contains a slight fall crispness. Yes, the Summer of Soccer is over, and what an interesting summer it has been. Back on Father’s Day, like a Phoenix, the US National Team rose from the ashes of its first two group stage matches in the Confederations Cup to advance to the semifinals where it shocked the football world by easily beating Spain, which was ranked by FIFA as the top national team at the time. It was this victory over Spain that grabbed the attention of the broader American public, resulting in an impressive 2.74 rating for the Brazil – US match on ESPN, per the overnight figures. Diehard fans of the US National Team rejoiced and basked in the new found attention that their beloved team was receiving in America, but there has been a dark side to the increased profile of US Soccer that occurred after that victory against Spain.
This dark side has been brewing all summer on the internet, particularly on certain message boards, and until today, I have seen it simmering but have chosen not to comment on the wicked wind blowing in American soccer. What is this wind? It’s a mindset that anyone whose analysis of the US National Team that is not 100% positive is an enemy of American soccer in general and the US National Team in particular. Like a tropical wave off the African coast that turns into an Atlantic Hurricane, the source of this wicked wind might just have been stirred up by the comments of US players, like Michael Bradley, following the US National Team’s victory over Egypt on Father’s Day.
What has finally spurred me to acknowledge this phenomenon was a message I received on Twitter today: “We are only trying to grow the game here in the US. Critics only turn people off and make them stay with american [sic] sports.” I can sympathize with the desire to grow the sport, after all that is one of the reasons this website exists. As for that second sentence, though, it is wrong on several levels.
The idea that critics of the game will turn people off is just ludicrous. If critics of teams and leagues turned people off of said teams and leagues, then ESPN and local sports talk radio stations across America would not be the success stories they are today. While non-sports media in the US has a bad tendency of dumbing down the news, sports media in the US understands that its viewers, listeners, and readers are not idiots and you cannot talk down to them. The quickest way for a sports media outlet to lose its broad audience is to paint a false, overly optimistic, happy, sappy picture of the local team, club, or athlete. If criticism turned people off, then the past week of discussion at 1560 The Game in Houston, home of my show, The Orange Slice, would have turned off all Texans fans and Astros fans with the criticism of the flaccid performances of the Texans on Sunday and the Astros all season. Guess what though, Texans and Astros fans here in Houston keep listening, and keep calling in to the local shows on 1560.
Here in Texas we have a saying: Don’t piss on me and tell me its raining. No matter what sport I happen to be commentating on, I keep that mantra in mind. I for one, and other commentators connected to MLS Talk, are not going to sugarcoat our opinions of the state of soccer in the US or the current form of the US National Team. When there is something to praise, we will praise it, and when there is something to criticize, we won’t hold our punches. What we won’t do is pretend our audience, including the majority of sports fans in the US, are idiots who can’t tell the difference between piss and rain.
What really crawled under my skin about that Twitter message was this part of the second sentence: “. . . and make them stay with american [sic] sports.” Instead of worrying about the analysis of the US National Team that is taking place on the MLS Talk website and in the MLS Talk podcasts, this person needs to take some time to learn their history. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: football/soccer is an American sport with a long, rich history in this country that dates back at least 140 years, if not longer.
When all is said and done, the success of American soccer and the US National Team off the pitch with general American sports fan will depend on two things: (1) success on the pitch and (2) honest assessments from the American soccer media. When the US National Team loses to Mexico 5-0 in the 2009 Gold Cup Final or 2-1 to Mexico at the Azteca in a World Cup Qualifier, the only way to keep the average American sports fan from shrugging their shoulders and losing interest is honest, serious, and sometimes harsh, criticism of the US National Team. It’s by explaining the shortcomings and mistakes of the US National Team, i.e. honestly answering questions, that the American soccer media can keep the new fan engaged, interested, and, most importantly, educated.