The Treble

All you're hearing about lately is news and blathering about the official arrival of world-renowned soccer star David Beckham to the Los Angeles area in preparation for the start of the Major League Soccer season.

For those of you who might not know -- David Beckham is probably one of the world's most famous athletes -- a man who has electrified soccer fans worldwide with his unique mix of charisma, leadership ability, and skill. He's young, attractive, media-friendly, and obscenely rich. He is considered one of the best soccer players in history, but beyond that is as much a part of European and Asian pop culture as Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan are in the United States.
Yet in many ways he's still a relative unknown in this country.
Sure people know his name, but you'd be hard pressed to find random samplings of North Americans who could pick him out of a crowd if he wasn't wearing a uniform.

So of course it seemed a major coup when the LA Galaxy paid Beckham a ridiculous amount of money (between contract and endorsements reports suggest he could earn close to $1 million dollars a week) to come be a part of their MLS team. But beyond that is the unwritten suggestion that the addition of one of the sport's most famous and beloved icons will somehow finally break down the wall that has kept soccer from becoming as accepted and beloved in this country as it is everywhere else on the planet.
But if you ask me, the result is going to be the exact opposite.
David Beckham will be the death of American Professional Soccer.
There's a continual misconception floating around suggesting that one of the main reasons soccer isn't more of a major sport in this country centers around the fact that Americans don't understand it. That because of our blind adoration for brutish knucklebrain games like football and basketball, we aren't actually capable of comprehending the complexities and beauty of the worlds most played sport -- which is utter crap.
The truth of the matter is that tons of Americans watch soccer every weekend.
It's just that we watch little kids play it. Stumbling, bunched-up groups of children running around in brightly-colored jerseys and Umbro shorts chasing a ball around in a field. Sure there are high schools who feature the game and college programs that routinely feed players to various European leagues -- but make no mistake:
In this country soccer is a kids sport.
Soccer is less likely to break little Stevie's leg than Pop Warner football, offers teams for both sons and daughters, doesn't cost an arm and a leg to buy equipment for -- and perhaps best of all, becomes something your kids get bored of after a few years.

It's perhaps not the most positive statement about American parenting -- but make no mistake, while we may love to see our kids playing a game, having fun, and competing with their peers -- after a couple of years of paying registration fees, buying overpriced cleats, going to practices a couple of nights a week and having to get up early Saturday after Saturday -- there's nothing Mom and Dad love more to hear than the day their kid decides he'd rather hang out with his friends and play videogames instead of going to practice this year.

But the most important facet of this isn't the way parents tire of the game, but the way American kids do. Talking heads can go on for years as to the reasons why the sport isn't the big deal in this country it is everywhere else -- but the simple fact is that if the fun of playing the game doesn't infect the kids in this country enough to want to play it on into their older years or keep up with the professional leagues and star players around the world, then why would the addition of another star soccer player make any difference either way?

Tiger Woods re-wrote the book on golf because the way he played the game was not only different from the way that other stars played before him, but his attitude about the game itself was far more pumped up and competitive than the way anyone else was going about it at the time.

Woods took golf the game and made it into a sport. But more importantly, Woods took something that was normally pure torture to watch on TV and made it into a legitimate entertainment option.

Ratings on golf broadcasts are completely different when Tiger is not featured or participating in a given tournament -- Which to me says people don’t really care about golf -- they just love to watch this guy do his thing. The same could be said for casual fans of tennis who don't follow the various pro tours closely, but watch the major events religiously as long as the big name stars are all involved.

So it makes sense in a way that adding a player with the international magnitude and appeal of David Beckham might bring a similar result for casual sports fans who might not have paid much attention to soccer before. The problem with this thinking is that for all his skill and success, Beckham the player doesn't transcend the game of soccer so much that Beckham the icon transcends the sport itself.

In other words, he's a great player -- but he really hasn't so much changed the game as much as he's played it at a master level. Worse, his greatest value on the field is in setting other players up with scoring opportunities. Casual viewers who tune in out of curiosity will find themselves quickly disappointed with the fact that Beckham doesn't really score that many goals. He's the leader of his team, no question -- but the way he plays is not something that radically changes the game or draws attention to itself.
      And that's the real problem.
Because regardless of who is or who isn't on the field or how they try to present it, professional soccer is really, really boring.

It's not that we as fans don’t understand the game. Most of us know exactly what's supposed to happen -- we've played soccer as kids, or had our kids involved. Most people have first-hand experience to let them know the endurance, balance, agility, and coordination that it takes to play the game. If anything, it's our experience with the game that hurts the sports appeal. Because the point of American youth soccer is to score goals and win the game in a convincing manner.
Which when you watch professional soccer doesn't seem to be what it's about at all.
When you hear international fans gush about soccer, they talk about the nonstop action and the way things can change in an instant. The problem is that people all around the world don't really have any idea what most Americans believe "constant action" or "an instant" actually is.

It's almost like international soccer fans use the metric system to measure these things, which of course we in this country almost religiously refuse to do. Sports fans in this country equate constant action to the idea of constant tension.

Teams scoring back to back points, end to end action -- not so much in the sense that the more points scored the better, but that the more tension that's built for fans who are hoping their team can hold on and win or the fans who are praying that their team can pull off a miracle and come from behind to win is a constant mental thing.

If your team is trying to catch up at the end of a football game, every little thing counts. Converting a third down. Stopping the clock. Stretching out the ball to get an extra yard. Each one of these little tasks have to be done right for the ultimate goal of scoring and winning to happen. In other words, major sports in this country are built on a series of smaller goals that need to be achieved for success to happen. All these things (a first down, a circus catch, a home run, a double play, etc) can be celebrated on their own merits whether the team wins or loses as a reflection of how well a team or an individual plays the game.

Soccer doesn't seem to work that way. Soccer flows. It moves back and forth. There's no such thing as end to end action on an international pitch. Soccer's a lot like arm wrestling -- it's either over in a second or it's a drawn out test of two guys pushing each other into a stalemate until one tires out or an opening presents itself to take advantage. In fact, when you think about it, professional soccer’s deliberate pace has a lot more in common with sports like cycling or distance running than it does with sports like football, basketball, or baseball.
I have tremendous respect for cyclists and runners, but you won't catch me watching them on TV
In fact when you hear soccer fans complain about American sports their major problem is that there is too much starting and stopping. It's a difference that creates an enormous rift between the way the game is played and the way the fans want to enjoy the sport itself.

Even if my team loses a game (which being a Broncos fan happens a lot) there are plays I can celebrate. There are individual moments that are successes on their own. In soccer, the only real highlights seem to be the goals and the fouls. Even though there are plenty of instances in professional and international soccer where scoring is possible, when a defensive player is able to take the ball away, or a bad pass gives the other team a chance to kick the ball back to midfield, the action itself is essentially over.

Even worse, if the constant struggle between soccer teams doesn't evolve into a scoring opportunity, then it doesn't. Coaches will play for ties. Games will end 0-0. Sure there are penalty kicks and shootouts, but is that competition or is that more like throwing a horseshoe at a stick in the ground and hoping to hit it? You either do or you don't. This means the moments of excitement in soccer that Americans are hoping for are few and far between. The actual moments of excitement that international fans appreciate aren't exciting for people in this country.
Which means the real question is -- well, why not?
Think about this for a second. International soccer has been around for ages. It's a game that can be played anywhere, a game of individual skill used in a team context. It doesn't require a certain physique, you don't need a ton of equipment, you can play with as little as two people or as many as 20 -- there's lots of reasons it's the world's favorite game.
But what I want to know is this:
When the world immigrated to the United States -- why didn't they bring it with them?
Why didn't soccer and the love for the game come across the Atlantic at the same time? History tells us that this country’s major population pushes were initialized by waves of first-generation European immigrants sweeping into the country during the periods following the major world wars. England, Italy, Ireland, Scotland -- all soccer playing countries. History also tells us that the major American spectator sport during that time period was Baseball (Babe Ruth in the early twentieth century, and other stars like DiMaggio, Mantle, etc. during the 50's) and that the major collegiate sport during the same time period was football.

Why with so many relocated families who grew up in soccer loving cultures did the sport never take hold? Was soccer shunned as a major sport during this time? Was it deemed un-American somehow? Did European immigrants shed their love for the old-world game in favor of embracing the new and different games of their adopted homelands?

I don't really have the answers for these questions. I just know the results.
Americans don't like soccer.
And unless a link is drawn between the way American sports fans enjoy the things we do and what soccer as a sport has to offer, then that bridge will never be built. For example, lets say you have a soccer game that lasts an hour and ends with a score of 2-1 (which is a pretty standard score for professional games). The first goal of the game might have come at the 24th minute of regulation.

As an American sports fan -- here's the question I absolutely need to have answered:
Were the 23 minutes before that goal part of some elaborate strategy put in place to specifically score that goal?
Did the coach gather the team up and say "Alright boys, lets run good old number 5 -- the 23 minute draw play. That should net us a point before halftime." Because if that's the way the game on the professional level works, I need to know it. I need to know that watching 20 straight minutes of what appears to be nothing has some sort of point.
But if it isn't.. Then we've got a whole new problem.
Because it pro soccer doesn't work that way, that means you schmucks are just making it up as you go along and any kind of scoring that happens is more sort of a fortunate accident than anything else.
Which is a lot like the way kids play it on weekends.
If the beauty of professional soccer is the based on the fact that grown men get paid ungodly amounts of money to play in the exact same style that unorganized kids do at the local park on Saturday -- then why should I bother to watch it? If the world's best players are just really running around in circles until halftime when they are given juiceboxes and peanut butter crackers to help them get their strength back up -- then I'm not really all that interested, you know?

I think that largely because it's Los Angeles there will be an initial buzz for Beckham's arrival. He and his wife are international celebrities. They're more of less the British Brangelina. Royals without crowns. There's a lot of excitement that follows wherever he goes. But once it comes down to watching him play on the field, I really do think it’s going to wear off a lot faster than the team, the league, and all of the people who are hoping to make money off of this would like.

But worst of all will be the moment when the ego-hound international media sensation David Beckham realizes that despite the money he's getting paid his American soccer career is an exercise in invisibility. The learning curve (if there even is one) for American fans to warm up to soccer is expected, but there's a real possibility that his playing in this league will hurt his international visibility.

Not only because he's playing in a tiny league in front of half-empty stadiums, but because MLS is a closed league. They have playoffs and championships, but they don't participate in international tournaments the way European club teams do. In other words, the champion team in MLS will not then travel to Barcelona to attempt to win the treble (which I think is a huge flaw with the way American pro soccer is set up).

Eventually there's going to come a point where Beckham will look at the diminishing crowds in the stands and ratings on the TV (unless he and his wife embark on some sort of Lohan/Hilton type self-immolating publicity run) where the man realizes that he's still a relative unknown in this country. And when that happens, the chances are really good that he'll turn his back on the league -- go back to playing international games, and resume his place as the world's most celebrated football star.
And in my mind, the moment David Beckham decides American
professional soccer isn't worth the bother will be the moment
the rest of us won't feel so bad about ignoring it either.
[Listening to:    The Pharcyde"Ya Mama" ]


I was really hoping you'd had some comments on this, because I need to know. DO professional soccer teams have real strategies?