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If U.S. can’t love soccer after this, it never will

July 11, 2011

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If Americans don’t fall in love with soccer after this, well, maybe they never will.

Yes, the epic quarterfinal win by the U.S. women over Brazil featured nearly everything their countrymen hate about the “beautiful game.”

They faced off against a team with better individual skills, plus an imagination and intuition about how to play that develops only over decades. They were handcuffed by lousy calls — with no chance of appeal — then mocked by dives and fake injuries cynically designed to steal their momentum and the little time that remained on the clock.

To top it off, after hard work and a last-gasp equalizer erased all that, their fortunes still hinged on those notoriously fickle penalty kicks.

But oh, oh, oh, that ending.

Oh so just, if not exactly swift.

“I really don’t know what to say,” veteran Abby Wambach began seconds after the U.S. won the penalty-kick contest 5-3.

But it didn’t take her long to come up with something.

“That is a perfect example of what this country is about, what the history of this team has always been,” Wambach added. “We never give up.”

If only this once, even the haters back in the States should be able to appreciate why the rest of the world believes there’s no greater drama in sports than watching a team trying to validate its national character in a World Cup. And for a nation wearied by a fluttering economy and political paralysis, it could hardly come at a better time.

Highlights of the game were shown between innings on the large video board in Yankee Stadium, and a crowd half a world away from Dresden, Germany, erupted as if it was there. A stream of luminaries as diverse as LeBron James and GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman rushed to Twitter to pass along congratulations — humbled, one hopes, by a display of grit and teamwork that has become increasingly rare back home.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, a Swede, summed it up as eloquently as anyone else.

“It’s something about the American attitude, and finding a way to win,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “Unbelievable.”

As fate would have it, the win Sunday came a dozen years to the day of the previously most famous moment in U.S. soccer history, men or women, when Brandi Chastain put her penalty kick past China’s Gao Hong to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup and then stripped down to her sports bra. But that moment really said more about a paradigm shift in the culture of all sports in America than it did about the culture of soccer here.

Empowered by Title IX, the women on that team had grown up as girls determined to claim their share of the ball fields and resources that were always available to boys. And with opportunities and support for female athletes advancing faster here than anywhere else, plus a talented and photogenic superstar in Mia Hamm, the U.S. women were the class of the field when international play began in earnest in 1991.

They’ve managed to keep their place near the top of the game, coming into this cup ranked No. 1. But the small advantages they enjoyed over a handful of rivals are gone, and the even larger ones they held over the rest of the world are drying up fast. The simple truth is that even the best U.S. players, women and men, still don’t know how to play what we stubbornly insist on calling soccer and what everyone else has called football for more than 150 years.

Even so, whatever breakthroughs U.S. soccer teams achieved over the last few decades have been almost entirely the result of a supreme effort by a dedicated corps of players who refused to be daunted by the odds. So it was one more time Sunday.

Comments

cato_the_elder 3 years, 9 months ago

"If U.S. can’t love soccer after this, it never will."

It never will.

gl0ck0wn3r 3 years, 9 months ago

Ftw. A penalty kick contest? Really? Lame.

ebyrdstarr 3 years, 9 months ago

I agree with you. I would say Brazil has more flair and perhaps more individual speed.

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

My wife and I were out eating one day, and there was a soccer match on the television. A guy with two little boys got up from the table next to us and I heard him tell these boys that that was football on the screen. It was so hard to not get up and correct him. I do not care what they call it in the rest of the world... here it is called soccer. A guy like that is going to raise his children to get their butts kicked in school.

Shelley Bock 3 years, 9 months ago

This made me laugh, too, but for the opposite reason that "cato_the_idiot" does. It is easy to see that you've never seen a local high school football (opps, soccer) game or professional game in person. You assume the players aren't physical? Get real. You assume that they aren't athletes? That's absurd.

Football / soccer fans overseas see American football players as being weak because they play with pads and helmets. The British think that rugby players are really are the ones who'll kick everyone else's butt. Each sport has it's strengths and weaknesses. Don't dump on something you don't understand.

If the man's sons continue to play soccer / football, they will become as strong, solid, physically fit, competitive and good citizens as if they played any other sport. Quite possibly, they will have a better time with dates on Friday nights than those butting their heads into the ground. Especially, if their lady friend also happens to play the same sport, remember, this was an article about women's football / soccer.

jhawkinsf 3 years, 9 months ago

I recall the year the women won the world cup, 1999, I think. Preceding the championship game, I watched the bronze medal game. It ended in a 0-0 tie. Then came the championship game. It also finished 0-0. Then came all the overtimes, yes 0-0. Then the shootout.
I was watching a game a couple of years ago on T.V. At halftime, the announcer was recapping the game, one side dominating play, basically just killing the other team. The score, 0-0. It's not that I don't think they are fine athletes. I'm sure they are. It's just boring. Add a couple of feet to the goal. Do something to make some more goals. Do something that will have a team's dominance reflected in the score. Add replay to overturn some of those bad calls. Do something. Even yesterday's game when the U.S. was up 1-0 midway through the first half, the announcers were suggesting the proper strategy for the U.S. was to lay back and play good defense (implying that winning 1-0 would be a great result and that the best way to achieve that is to end the game with the current score, killing time for the next 60 minutes). Only a couple of bad calls at the 66 minute mark prevented that strategy from being successful.

Shelley Bock 3 years, 9 months ago

Hmm. Stall at the end of a basketball game?. Sit on the football with a ground game to run the the clock out? Aren't these the same strategy? Oh, and when did you ever go to a KU basketball game and everyone cheered on the refs for their great decision making and eyesight?

jhawkinsf 3 years, 9 months ago

I'm old enough to remember the four corners "offense", prior to the shot clock. We responded by having a shot clock. Sure, you can stall a little, but not for 80% of the game should you be lucky enough to score an early goal.
Both basketball and football have put in replay. Baseball is talking about it. Soccer? And all those 0-0 ties I mentioned. Japan's thrilling "upset of the century" over Germany, 0-0 after regular time. The big goal came in overtime, long after the announcers spoke at length about the strategy of securing a 0-0 tie and going into shootouts. Soccer is like watching two grandmasters fight to a thrilling draw. I love chess, but if you're looking to expand it's popularity, putting it on T.V. will require something different.

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

These kids live in the United States... they should refer to the sport as soccer. That is just the father trying to impose his anti-Americanism on his kids. Those kids try to tell a 6'4 240lb linebacker they play football, they will be laughed off the field.

rivercitymom 3 years, 9 months ago

Anti-Americanism? Yeesh. Paranoid much? Really, he was probably trying to give his kids a brief lesson in what the rest (read: MOST) of the world calls the game. FUTBOL. See it even is spelled differently.

cato_the_elder 3 years, 9 months ago

Hepburn, your love of keeky-ball is touching.

Speaking of butting heads, one of your heroes, Zidane, has already written the book on that.

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

The United States has the correct attitude about soccer... it is a good sport for children to play but a horrible sport for adults to pay to watch other adults play. I did not degrade the athletic ability of soccer players one bit in my post... just the sport itself. In football, baseball, or basketball, you have the potential to see something great on every play whether it is a perfectly thrown bomb, a home run into the upper deck, or a breakaway dunk. Soccer gets really boring watching the ball go back and forth... and at least there is no flopping in the other sports... or else risk the ridicule and ire of the other players.

MISTERTibbs 3 years, 9 months ago

"and at least there is no flopping in the other sports... "

Ladies and Gentlemen of the court, I'd like to submit as my first piece of evidence Vlade Divac.

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

Touche.... although he took ridicule from other players.

jonas_opines 3 years, 9 months ago

"The United States has the correct attitude about soccer...In football, baseball, or basketball, you have the potential to see something great on every play whether it is a perfectly thrown bomb, a home run into the upper deck, or a breakaway dunk."

Rather than the correct attitude, that might just mean that we have a good attitude towards the sports that enable our deficient attention spans. The sport is clearly a large success everywhere else but here, so it's a little difficult to say that we have the correct read on things.

Personally, I find TV futbol and football to be virtually the same: utterly boring and meaningless ways to waste a couple hours watching commercials.

Guess it takes all kinds.

slshogrin 3 years, 9 months ago

If you ever watched a real futbol game, you'd see many great plays in one game, you need to watch European leagues like Primera Serie A, Bundaslega, etc. Sure, to Americans, scoring is low, but futbol doesn't give 2 or 7 points every time you score, or give 3 points because you scored from a long way. Of the 3 American sports you mentioned, only one is truly American..basketball, and watching pro basketball is as boring as competitive grass growing. American Football came from Rugby, which is a much more exciting sport to watch and doesn't stop every 5 seconds. Baseball comes from Cricket. Both Rugby and Cricket use way less equipment (no pads or gloves). As far as your comment about Futbol being called soccer in America, America is the only country that calls it that, at least Futbol actually uses the foot with the ball for making almost all plays, not like Football that uses hands, but it can't be called handball since that's used in another sport already. Maybe American Football should change it's name to something else...

riverdrifter 3 years, 9 months ago

I liked the second comment: "That's not the only thing she fakes."

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

Actually, I was making fun of Erika or whatever her name was. I was actually force to watch the second half as that was the only thing that was on the TV when I was on the treadmill at the gym.

Shelley Bock 3 years, 9 months ago

Can football / soccer become popular in the US? It has been growing. The biggest boosts in popularity occur in conjunction with US men's or women's success in World Cup play.

Many years ago, the Kansas City Spurs of the NASL league played before few fans in old Municipal Stadium. Now, Sporting plays before 15,000 or more in a soccer / football dedicated stadium. That's quite a difference.

Back in the '60's, there was but one youth soccer in league in Kansas City. Now, there are many leagues and litterally 100's of teams through out the region.

When these leagues started, there were no women's teams. Now there are nearly as many girls teams as there are boys.

In Lawrence high schools, soccer / football has the highest number of participants of any sport, more than football, more than baseball-softball. Individual team rosters are much smaller so, generally, players get more playing time than in other sports, so the players enjoy it more. Boys and girls from Lawrence have played on scholarship at every level of universities.

It is probably unlikely that soccer / football will equal American football. However, with increased numbers of girls / women playing the game, when they have kids in their future, they're likely going to play soccer / football rather than American football.

Laugh now, the future will be different.

MISTERTibbs 3 years, 9 months ago

"When these leagues started, there were no women's teams. Now there are nearly as many girls teams as there are boys."

Title IX had a lot to do with that change.

"In Lawrence high schools, soccer / football has the highest number of participants of any sport, more than football, more than baseball-softball."

Some of this is due to the seasons they are played. The guys have to chose between soccer and american football in the fall. The ladies between soccer and softball in the spring. The coaches aren't real good at sharing the athletes during "their" season, it's tough enough to get them to let loose of kids in the summer. There were a couple of exceptions this year of course, but that is rare.

MyName 3 years, 9 months ago

I'd be surprised if it even gets as popular as hockey in the States, but at least there's potential unlike the other major league sports which are all leagues owned by billionaires who hire millionaires to duke it out on the field while holding their fans hostage in order to secure stadium upgrades.

That being said, they're still fun to watch alot of the time.

devobrun 3 years, 9 months ago

I went to a Chicago Fire game in Soldier field back in about 2000. I couldn't talk to any of the fans since I didn't speak Spanish.

It wound up a tie and a shootout.


In all contests involving an offense and a defense, the offense runs an attack and the defense limits, counters, or stops the attempt to score. In soccer the defense is so much more effective than the offense that the least likely occurrence in a soccer match is a goal scored by the offense while running a play. Usually the goal is scored on a fluke. A broken play. An oops, what was that? Highly skilled teams have the least likely chance of scoring.

Let's go to shootout. 90 minutes of futility followed by what amounts to a coin flip.


For several decades, the population growth of the U.S. has been zero. Except for immigrants. People from Asia and central America account for most of the new folks in this country.

Hence, soccer.

Shelley Bock 3 years, 9 months ago

I would agree that Title IX has had a significant impact. However, one can't argue against the fact that women's soccer / football has gained popularity in large part to the popularity and success of the women's national team.

Yes, if soccer / football and American football were in opposing seasons, there would be more participants. I haven't really seen the conflict with softball and soccer / football in the Spring. Regardless of those same sport seasons, soccer / football participation is growing.

MISTERTibbs 3 years, 9 months ago

I'll agree with you that, the more success the national team has the more popularity it has gained. I remember when Pele played for the NY Cosmos back in the day and the boost it gave (briefly) to soccer in the US. Then Beckham to the Galaxy, coupled with the US team's runner up finish in the Confederations Cup provided an additional boost to men's soccer.

The women's team has been dominant for some time, and the 1999 World Cup gave it a real boot in the backside.

As for the other part of the discussion, see what Lee Ice has to say about it http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2011/may/31/ice-move-softball-fall/?high_school_sports

Shelley Bock 3 years, 9 months ago

Have already read that article and commented on May 31 regarding it.

I just don't believe that there is much conflict between soccer / football and softball. Soccer seems to have better runners that are more interested in running the field. I just don't see much of a conflict.

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

Title IX has given American women a huge advantage over women in other nations. There is no reason that American women should sweep the gold medals/ international championships in everything.

Resident10 3 years, 9 months ago

I used to have an attitude like labmonkey. (Though maybe not as mean. You sound like a crotchity old dude, labmonkey.) My kids started playing soccer and I started to pay attention. Now I watch every game I can. I really think soccer will easily overtake Hockey. Baseball may die of self-inflicted wounds but even if it doesn't I don't know that it can survive the grass roots that soccer has established. American Football will survive as long as it doesn't make the mistakes baseball has. However, football is likely at its peak and I can seriously see soccer equal to a declining NFL in the next 10 years even if the NFL doesn't kill revenue sharing. People who doubt this really need to look at the country's demographics, changing sports media trends, as well as the popularity soccer has with the under 10 crowd. It really is exciting.

devobrun 3 years, 9 months ago

Especially if you came here from Mexico last Saturday.

Resident10 3 years, 9 months ago

The shuffleboard contingent is mad too?

devobrun 3 years, 9 months ago

Basketball soccer.....Basccer. 6 players on each team. Each team has an 8 foot player who stays by the rim and blocks shots....no goal tending rules. Each team prefers to be on defense and lays back limiting the ability of the offense to get away a good shot. When a pass is intercepted, it is immediately thrown down court to a running player who takes a shot on goal. Unless the pass is made to a player who doesn't have a defender between him and the goal. Then it is off sides. Think 4-corners offense.

Now do it with your feet. Every third or fourth game a pass ricochets wildly off three players and winds up going through the goal. Usually the score is nil-nil and free throws are used to decide the fate of the game. Your best chance of winning is to distract the 8-footer by a scantily clad babe in the stands. He has been getting pretty bored by now and might forget to swat the free throw away.

And my right ear is completely deaf because of the guy next to me with a vuvuzela is about to get...his head...handed...to...him.

devobrun 3 years, 9 months ago

And of course, no erudite discussion of soccer is complete until we review:

Shelley Bock 3 years, 9 months ago

Until you brought up "vuvuzela", I had forgotten about them. Haven't heard a single one at Livestrong.

Liberty275 3 years, 9 months ago

The play was incredible to watch. I still have no interest in soccer.

labmonkey 3 years, 9 months ago

Soccer will never catch on in the United States for three reasons...

1) For better or worse, we have short attention spans. Football is the best sport for this as there are a few plays with something explosive possible on each play. Then there is enough time to get a beer, take a leak, and get back to the game. Same with baseball and to a lesser extent, basketball. This is also a reason that hockey is more of a regional sensation than a national one.

2) The networks will not want it as it is not conductive for commercials. The NFL, NBA, and MLB make huge amounts of money with commercials. To make NFL type money, soccer would have to go to pay-per-view, and I doubt that will work in the United States as I don't think even the NFL could survive being exclusively on PPV.

3) Those like Hepburn who always try to prove that soccer is a much better sport than Football, baseball, or basketball instead of trying to introduce it to people on it's own merit. And if someone doesn't like it, they don't like it.

To me, an international sport that would be much more interesting than soccer and would more likely catch on here is cricket. Although I have no idea of the rules, I can still and actually sit and watch it for awhile. The only thing that would have to be done for an American audience is make it so a game (match, whatever they call it) doesn't have the possibility of lasting for several days.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 9 months ago

"And if someone doesn't like it, they don't like it."

If you had started and stopped with that point, I'd have found it much easier to agree with you. Especially if you included the corollary, "And if someone likes it, they like it."

cato_the_elder 3 years, 9 months ago

Labmonkey, you're right about cricket. The reason it might catch on in America is that it's not terminally boring like keeky-ball.

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