05 August 2010

Post-Cup Reflections: The State of Soccer in the Union

First and foremost, congratulations to Spain for breaking the European Curse and winning their first ever World Cup title. Rather than follow Germany's unsuccessful game plan of conceding possession, the Dutch decided the best way to break up Spain's rhythmic, precision passing attack was to foul them repeatedly... a tactic used often in some American sports. This was a smart approach although the execution of it bordered on thuggish at times and made the game nearly unwatchable for casual fans.

Editors note: Not this casual fan. I found the Dutch approach exciting, whereas the Spanish theatrics were simply infuriating. --JD

Despite the 115 minutes of foul-plagued, scoreless soccer that preceded the Spanish breakthrough in the waning moments, the World Cup Final surpassed this year's US-Ghana match to become the most watched soccer game in American history. Overall, viewership of English-language telecasts was up 41% over the previous World Cup, despite the fact that most matches were airing live in the morning. This is especially significant, as the two teams that garner the highest viewership--the United States and Brazil--both found themselves victims of premature exits. Nevertheless, the World Cup Finals garnered more viewers than any single World Series or NBA Finals telecast.

In contrast, the MLS has seen very little if any bump in TV ratings. That's not to say the league is on hard times. In fact, the MLS is probably in the best shape it has ever been. Nearly all MLS teams have soccer specific stadiums, attendance numbers are at all time highs, expansion is underway and foreign stars are beginning to take notice. Regarding this last point, while David Beckham arrived amid huge fanfare and expectations, the younger Thierry Henry--arguably the greatest striker of his generation--is much more likely to make an impact. Unlike Beckham, he will put the ball in the back of the net and should live up to expectations. All that, and he actually wants to be in the States.

Two major story lines are unfolding in the National Team ranks. The first is what to do with Coach Bob Bradley. Traditionally, other countries tend to replace there coach every four years regardless of how much success they have had. Exceptions, such as Italy and France's 2010 squads, led to disastrous results: neither team won a game and the French mutinied against their coach. In 2002, the United States made a surprise run to the World Cup quarterfinals. Their furthest advancement since 1930. As a result, Coach Bruce Arena was kept on to coach the 2006 World Cup squad, also failing to win a single match.

That's the case against Bradley. On the other hand, he has just completed the most successful 4 year run in Men's National Team history. He is the first American coach in 80 years to win his group. He is the first American coach ever to participate in the finals of a FIFA sanctioned tournament when the US finished runner-up to Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Personally, I entered the World Cup believing that if Bradley could navigate the team out of the group stage he should be retained. However, I have since changed my opinion. His lineup selections continually hampered the team throughout the World Cup. He has shown a tendency to start games very defensively which, in my opinion, is responsible for the team's frequent poor starts. Once going down a goal or two, the team kicks it into gear dominating games as they play aggressively.

For that reason, I would like the USMNT to find a more offense-minded coach who is not stuck in a defend and counter mentality. That is a good mindset when playing superior teams like Spain. But the United States has the talent and ability now to play with most of the rest of the world without having to rely on that tactic. So I say we import a foreign coach now who can help this team take the next step.

The second big question is what to do with Landon Donovan? After a successful loan to Everton in the Winter, and then a star performance in the World Cup, he is hot property. The European leagues are clamoring to acquire him. This would be best development-wise for his game as he could challenge himself by consistently playing against the best competition in the world.

However, the MLS is refusing to transfer him to Europe as they want to make him a local ambassador to the game of soccer. League commissioner Don Garber thinks Donovan's presence can help draw in World Cup audiences into the MLS. My personal opinion: send him to Europe. His presence hasn't done much to help Major League Soccer awareness thus far. However, his continued development can only help the National Team which, in turn, helps raise the profile of soccer in America. Besides, more Americans would watch him in Europe as the EPL actually gets higher tv ratings than the MLS.

Thanks for following RPBlog's coverage of the World Cup, and to everyone who took the time to read these posts and give soccer a chance. Hopefully, the World Cup provided some excitement and increased interest in the sport. For those interested, the August 10th friendly between the United States and Brazil will take place at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. For the time being, now that the World Cup is over, I can return to my usual summer time passion... the Phillies. Let's Go Phils!

Photo Credit: MinnPost.com

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