So how big was the U.S. victory on Wednesday? For most Generation Xers (like myself), is there any doubt that Landon Donovan’s goal might now be the most memorable in US soccer history? But plenty of sportswriters didn’t attend high school in the 1980s or the early 1990s, never attended concerts by the Roots or Jane’s Addiction, and hate Allen Iverson for questioning the efficacy of “practice” (never mind that NBA players are forced to ball 82 games a year, making practice fundamentally stupid in the regular season), meaning they fail to grasp the nuances of a sport that for much of their lives was viewed suspiciously. Moreover, this willful ignorance fails to take into account the sport’s historical trajectory stateside.
Take Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke.
Now Plaske has made myopic soccer comments before. For example, in an “Around the Horn” broadcast in June of 2006 (6/22/2009), Plaschke suggested that the US team lacked diversity, which he argued was startling considering the number of ethnic minorities that played the sport. Now there are two problems with this. First, in the US, yes plenty of minorities play futbol, but the ODP and Regional development teams that serve as national team feeders are dominated by middle and upper middle class whites. As a recent, New York Times article on Dutch soccer giant Ajax’s training system pointed out, when compared with the rest of the world, the US develops soccer talent backwards:
“Ajax operates a fleet of 20 buses to pick up the boys halfway through their school day and employs 15 teachers to tutor them when they arrive. Parents pay nothing except a nominal insurance fee of 12 euros a year, and the club covers the rest — salaries for 24 coaches, travel to tournaments, uniforms and gear for the players and all other costs associated with running a vast facility. Promising young players outside the Ajax catchment area usually attend academies run by other Dutch professional clubs, where the training is also free, as it is in much of the rest of the soccer-playing world for youths with pro potential. (The U.S., where the dominant model is “pay to play” — the better an athlete, the more money a parent shells out — is the outlier.)”
Shouldn’t a sportswriter of Plaschke’s experience be aware of this? However, the second larger problem with Plaske’s 2006 comments, arise from the inaccuracy of his observation regarding diversity. The team features several minority faces (Does Hercules Gomez sound non diverse to you?) and even some class diversity as illustrated by at least one prominent example Clint Dempsey. Dempsey basically grew up in Texas trailer parks, playing soccer in the streets with local Mexican and Mexican American kids.
On this past Wednesday’s “Around the Horn” Plaschke once again dug in. While the other four participants praised the US team Plaschke poo pooed the victory, labeling Algeria “hapless” and wondering “how far have our expectations fallen?” (Plaske, Bill, Around the Horn, 6/23/2010). He continued, belittling Algeria “I hate to rain on everyone’s victory parade here but this was about relief not rejoicing … the US should beat an Algeria team that never passed the group stage before, the US should beat a team that hadn’t scored a goal in the world cup”. For the LA columnist, the US team should have done better. As a quarterfinalist in 2002 , the US should be top dog or as Plaske grunted, “drama does not equal jubilation shouldn’t we be better than that?”
To some extent, he may have a point, the millions of dollars thrown at the game and the number of youth soccer players suggests a faster climb, but how fast is too fast? Over the last 20 years, the progress soccer has made in the US is astounding. The US has made six world cups in a row and gotten to the quarterfinals once. Plaschke forgets that in 2002, the US backed into the knock out stage when South Korea bailed them out with a victory over Poland. This year the US actually won their group outright (which hadn’t happened since 1930), a group that included one of the few traditional European powers left, England (a team that “hapless” Algeria flummoxed into a 0-0 tie).
Plaschke continually made references to the small size of Algeria and the US’ larger population, but this again seems myopic. Ask Italy, a nation of nearly 60 million, how it feels today after it lost to a country of five million Slovaks, while tying the smaller nations of Paraguay (six million) and New Zealand (really, do I even need to give you a number? Just think “Flight of the Concords”). Do I even need to discuss France? (let’s just say it’s significantly bigger than Uruguay or South Africa though admittedly Mexico crushes them all with over 100 million citizens).
World Cup soccer is generational. For example, once again, look at the French. France won in 1998, got booted in group play in 2002, and was back in the final in 2006, probably winning if not for Zidane’s inexplicable outburst (it’s inexplicable b/c he had to have heard worse over the course of his career, and costly b/c his penalty kick replacement missed.) As to Plaschke’s other point regarding the millions of young athletes playing soccer, the number of youth soccer players certainly matters, but it’s the professional ranks that really determine your national sides, and the MLS is well … the MLS. America’s best players compete abroad (someone just screamed not Donovan, but he played on loan for Everton this year and did quite well which I humbly believe helped set him up for Wednesday’s clutch goal), this is the point Plaschke should have made. The MLS is really little more than a well meaning second tier league. When Plaske argues that until “we start judging soccer like we judge other sports internationally it’ll never take a step forward … “, his point of reference is basketball, where the US features the world’s greatest league and STILL struggles to bring home international gold.
To be fair, the other four participants panned his responses, but Plaschke’s viewpoint remains a problem for soccer’s continued growth in the US. Like it or not, writers like Plaske operate in a public sphere that in this context behaves ahistorically. The US basketball/soccer comparison ignores the historical fact that the US INVENTED basketball and has been perfecting it ever since. Americans only began playing soccer, I mean really playing over the past 20 or 30 years. The worry is if anyone actually listens to him.