I had the opportunity to watch yesterday’s USA/Brazil soccer game in the presence of two avid and knowledgeable soccer fans – - parents of a collegiate level player. When Clint Dempsey scored to put the US up 1-0, we agreed that would not be enough for the US to win; when Landon Donovan then made the score 2-0 and when the US defense seemed capable of thwarting the swarming offense that Brazil threw at them, we thought that if the US could hold that lead until halftime, they had a real shot to win the game.
However, when Brazil scored its first goal inside the first minute of the second half, the mood in the room darkened significantly. Then, when there was a 10 or 12-minute span of play where the ball was constantly in the US defensive end of the field, we kinda sorta knew that it was going to take a few miracle saves by the US goalkeeper to hold onto this lead. By then, we had pretty much given up the thought that the US was going to go on offense sufficiently to add a third goal. The US goalkeeper, Tim Howard, indeed made a couple of miraculous saves but even those were not sufficient. The result from yesterday showed that the US men’s soccer team is a good one and indeed may be on the verge of joining other traditional soccer nations as a “tough out” in any international competition.
The US team will face an interesting challenge in early August when they travel to Mexico for a CONCACAF game. The US beat Mexico earlier this year here in the US. The men’s soccer team has – to put it mildly – not had great success playing in Mexico; their cumulative record there is zero wins in twenty-three games. But a team capable of beating Spain and playing Brazil as tough as they did away from home should be considered capable of a road win in Mexico – - no?
Having said all of the above, I am not ready to pronounce the sport of soccer as “having burst onto the US sporting scene”. I do not think it has done that; frankly, I don’t think it is about to do that. Call me jaded; call me a nattering nabob of negativity; call me anything except late for dinner; even a US victory over Brazil yesterday would not have made soccer a top shelf sport in the US in 2009.
I was here and interested in soccer when Pele came to the US to take the North American Soccer League to the top of US sports. Courtesy of an old friend who worked for the NASL, I got to see a championship game from midfield seats in the upper deck of RFK Stadium. I was here when the orgasmic prose came from the soccer poets about how more kids were playing soccer than baseball in the US and how when they grew up soccer would dominate the scene. As I recall, those odes were rather common back in the early 1980s. Few if any of the soccer poets have recast those odes as the elegies they should have been in the first place. I was here when the US Women’s soccer team won the World Cup and Brandi Chastain’s sports bra became the sports bra seen round the world. I was here for the David Beckham scam – a con of such a proportion that you would have thought P.T. Barnum had been reincarnated.
Soccer remains a niche sport in the US. That is not a bad thing nor is it a good thing. It is reality. According to reports, all of the MLS teams playing in soccer-only venues instead of hugely expensive and cavernous football stadiums are operating in the black. There continue to be millions of kids who play youth soccer. More people are watching soccer on TV – particularly the international matches involving the lead up to next year’s World Cup. That is the state of soccer in the US and it is not a bad state to be sure. What US soccer does not need is another outpouring of baseless praise and rosy scenario projections suggesting that the NFL will be overwhelmed here in the US by soccer interest sometime in the next decade. To anyone poised to pen such nonsense, I have three words for you:
Not … Gonna … Happen!
While watching yesterday’s Confederations Cup Final, I kept marveling at how good soccer is as a TV watching experience. There are no commercial interruptions; there are few if any annoying on-screen graphics; there is a judicious use of replay so most of what you are seeing is the live action of the game. As a viewer-from-the-couch, soccer is “good TV” – - and that got me to thinking about sports that are “bad TV”. And that brought to mind immediately the sport of golf.
It takes PGA Tour players almost 4 hours to complete a round; in those 4 hours, their ball is actually in play – - moving relative to the earth – - for about 2.5 minutes. That is not riveting TV and so I began to think about how golf could make a rule change here and there to make it more interesting on TV. Please note, I don’t think any or all of these rule changes would make golf a better game; I think they would make it better on TV…
First of all, there needs to be a shot clock for golf. Hey, it works for the NBA and for college basketball. So, give each golfer 24 seconds from the time he walks within 15 feet of his ball to hit the ball or lose a stroke. It is not compelling TV to watch Tiger Woods take more than two minutes to line up a putt. Hit the damned ball…
Taking a lead from the NHL, maybe golf should allow fighting – - with the stipulation of course that no clubs can be used in the altercations lest that appear far too unseemly and ungentlemanly.
The PGA needs to outlaw caddies. If these guys are the best golfers in the world, let them figure out the distances to the pin for themselves and let them line up their own puts – - in 24 seconds or less of course. If these finely honed athletes cannot carry their own bags, let them pull them on a carrier. It would please me no end to see the golfers use golf carts but the golf goofs still cannot bring themselves to think about that after Casey Martin publicly cleaned their clocks over that issue…
Here is a rule most TV viewers would vote for. The PGA should ban for life from any tournament gallery any person who yells “You da man…” or “Get in the hole…” as soon as a ball is struck. These folks have to be among the most annoying assclowns on the planet. Here is Scott Ostler of the SF Chronicle on the subject:
“About that annoying gallery guy who follows Tiger Woods. When that guy dies and they’re about to lower the coffin, will someone shout, ‘Get in the hole!’?”
I also think that spectator cheering should be allowed during the matches. After all, the ball is sitting perfectly still for the best players in the world to strike. It isn’t like a baseball player trying to hit a 100 mph slider. Think of all the productive man-hours that would be generated if the PGA did not require volunteers to come out to hold up “Silence” signs at every hole for every player. And the good news here is that the basic rules of golf would preclude any goofs from showing up with a “D” and a “Fence” to start a chant of “Dee- Fence…”
Finally, the PGA needs to hire fashion consultants – - or wardrobe mavens. Some of the players look like clowns on TV. Once again, allow me to offer a comment by Scott Ostler to make my point:
“The white belt will never make a comeback, but you have to admire the courage of PGA golfers for trying.”
Finally, since I have cribbed liberally from Scott Ostler’s observations today, let me close with one more of his observations about a sport that might need some changes of its own:
“If you’re a spectator at a NASCAR race and a driver lands in your lap, do you have to throw him back? Carl Edwards didn’t quite make it into the cheap seats at Talladega, but the radio account of Edwards’ oopsie probably went like this: ‘And there’s a souvenir transmission for some lucky fan!’ “
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…