Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
I Was Rooting for England Anyway
2006-06-13 11:59
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Before we get to the Team USA-bashing, I just thought I should mention that back in the world of baseball, Jeff Francis pitched another superb game as the Rockies won a low-scoring game on the road in Washington. It doesn't mean much if they don't follow it up with a series win, but if Colorado really doesn't have all the pieces in place for this year (which they don't) all we as fans can hope for its continued development from their young stars. Francis is developing. He's only 5-5 but his ERA is 3.76 and his batting average against is .211. The Rockies aren't good enough to deserve more than, say, two All-Stars, and those guys should be Brian Fuentes and Matt Holliday. But Francis is the rare pitching prospect who's turning into all they said he could be. It's nice.

OK, Czech Republic 3, USA 0. This game was brutal. If you watched the Italy-Ghana match immediately following, even more so, because it's obvious that the Ghanians in the person of Michael Essien have a difference-making star, which the US lacks. Unless their performance dramatically changes between now and Saturday, the American soccer team is going 0-3 with a goal differential that will very probably place them dead last in the field of 32. This should not come as a huge surprise, really. Intelligent, unbiased commentators have been saying that the US would need a miracle to advance out of Group E since the draw. Unfortunately none of these people work for ESPN. The amount of utter crap that has been shoveled upon the unsuspecting American soccer viewer regarding the home team's chances in this tournament has been completely ridiculous. During the Japan-Australia game yesterday, the "bottom line" ran an hours-minutes-seconds countdown to the US game, as if it was some sort of event. Never mind the fact that both Japan and Australia would crush the US on a neutral field right now, and played a fabulously entertaining game with an wild, unlikely finish -- the Australians scoring their first World Cup goal ever, then their second and third, all in the last six minutes. This almost managed to go unnoticed by the American TV crew, which like every ESPN World Cup broadcast group seemed to be hooked up to electrodes which would shock them violently if they went five minutes without hyping Team USA.

What's really amazing is given the wildly disproportionate amount of airtime given to "breaking down" the US-Czech matchup, nobody stated the obvious, which is that the Czech team was way, way more talented, way, way more experienced, and way, way less likely to completely crash and burn than serial European failure Landon Donovan and the ugly Americans. ESPN and ABC's approach to the World Cup has been to completely buy into to a self-defeating nugget of accepted wisdom, which is that in order for soccer to catch on in the US, the American team has to be good at it. If the networks spent a minute of their time talking about the other 31 teams in the field, is it possible that American fans would be interested in the hundreds of great stories that don't involve the third-rate talent of their national team and their fourth-rate professional league? In advance of the Italy-Ghana game, which was in question until the very end and featured some inspired play from world-class players on both sides, the only thing ESPN's flag-wavin' experts could offer is vain hope that the two sides might tie so that the US's chances of advancing could survive on life support for another few days. Oh, and let's just look at these "experts" for a second. If no one watched any of the recent World Cups in the U.S., why is ESPN resuscitating the public careers of every bit player on those unmemorable American teams? And could those electrodes perhaps be put to better use punishing these "journalists" for their constant subsitution of the word "we" for "the Americans?" Does anybody care what Julie Foudy thinks? If Tommy Smyth is being upheld as the lone ESPN paragon of truth in reporting and plain talk, clearly, something is very wrong. The nadir in my opinion occurred during "World Cup Live" yesterday when an unbroken 90 minutes of bleating about Bruce Arena's master plan for the Italians was paused for a report on Ronaldhino -- yes, best player in the world Ronaldhino -- which lasted a full 20 seconds. Stop the insanity.

I don't speak enough Spanish to switch over permanently to Univision, and sadly, my interest in the real stories behind the Copa Mundial is such that I can't think of another way to get news like the incredible disappearance and reappearance of Togo's coach without just enduring the jingoism. You know what this is like? Imagine if for the MLB playoffs last year every single moment of every preview show, plus huge chunks of the game broadcasts, were dedicated to discussing the Padres. ESPN and ABC seem dead set on justifying the hysterical imbalance of their programming thus far by continuing to behave as if the Americans are any kind of story up until and perhaps even past the moment of their mathematical elimination. This is illogical. Don't they want US eyes tuning into the knockout stages? Wouldn't this maybe be a good time to look around and start informing their audience about the teams that might actually have a chance of winning? At this point I would even welcome one of those cheesy NBC Olympics-style puff pieces about the triumph of the human spirit in Togo or Ivory Coast or wherever. Man, I can't even express how much I don't care about Claudio Reyna. I want my Shaka Hislop!

So, having said all that...did you watch the actual game? What did you think? Does a team that left one guy completely unmarked down the right flank five minutes into their first World Cup game, then saw their entire back line left flat-footed against a vanilla through pass for a blowout-ensuring third goal, have a chance of beating Italy? No, they don't. (The second goal that the Czechs scored, I think we can all agree, was just a dazzling, unstoppable play. One that was set up by a botched US clear attempt, yeah, but whatever.) At this point the Americans' goal should be to not finish 32nd. That will be an uphill climb given the intensity with which the less talented teams in the tourney (not that there are many of them) have played so far.

2006-06-13 13:29:55
1.   sanchez101
What so amazingly silly is that ESPN so obviously set themselves up for failure. That or their completely ignorant. Either way it makes their coverage look like a joke and sabotages any chance for decent ratings once the US is eliminated. This makes whoever hired John Kruk look like a genius.

Perhaps this is more a comentary on American dissinterest in footbal, but did anyone notice what the lead story on last nights sportscenter was? Ben Rothlesburger's motorcycle crash. Wow, In most other countries a dramatic let down like a opening world cup blowout would be at the top of national news coverage, here its plays second fiddle to a car accident.

2006-06-13 13:42:38
2.   Vishal
i'm definitely not rooting for england. they're one of the last countries i'd root for in any sporting event.
2006-06-13 13:55:10
3.   Bob Timmermann
My brother was less than impressed:
2006-06-13 14:02:52
4.   Shaun P
I am not a soccer fan at all - I know nothing about it - but I heard a radio story this morning about Togo's reaction to their first-ever World Cup goal and their 1-0 lead over Korea at halftime - and I was hooked. I didn't watch on TV but I did frequently check the score online, to see if Togo's lead held up.

So many Americans love the underdog, and it seems that this World Cup is filled with underdogs - why isn't ESPN playing that angle up? Because the US team is itself an underdog? It just doesn't make sense to me.

2006-06-13 14:15:08
5.   Bob Timmermann
I have a feeling that ESPN thought the "Americans as underdogs" theme was played out. So they tried to opt for the "Hey, we're good at this! We don't need no stinkin' one-named Brazilians to get you to watch!"
2006-06-13 14:27:22
6.   Shaun P
That's a good point, Bob. I wouldn't have minded learning more about those one-named Brazilians - but that's just me.
2006-06-13 14:33:03
7.   Bob Timmermann
But you see ... one-named Brazilians are you know, FOREIGN ...

You need a good old-fashioned American name like Landon Donovan! Or Claudio Reyna!

2006-06-13 14:33:47
8.   Dan Lucero
I'm not here to mock all you guys, but I do have a serious question: do you really think that the majority of Americans, who generally couldn't give less of a damn about soccer, would bother even paying any sort of attention to the World Cup if they knew that the good ol' red, white, and blue home team didn't have a ghost of a chance?

I've established in an earlier post on this blog that I loathe soccer, but I'll be honest - with all the media hype the US team was getting coming into this tournament, by ESPN and the major sports magazines, my curiousity was piqued. Not enough to sit down and watch a game, but enough to check out the highlights on SportsCenter. I don't think it's being an 'ugly American' to care about an event because my home country is involved and purportedly has a chance to do well. Now, if I had heard that the United States would play flat, uninspired, boring (well, moreso than usual) soccer and didn't stand a chance of advancing, I'd have ignored the tournament altogether until casually checking the score of the championship game.

And I have another question: if people in the US don't give a crap about US soccer, do you really think they're going to give a crap about Togo soccer, or Japanese soccer? If I lived in Denver and didn't care for baseball, I wouldn't watch a Red Sox-Yankees game, or even a Royals-Yankees game, much less a Rockies game. If no one cares about the product, then there's really nothing you can do about it. As for extended coverage of the Australias and the Ivory Coasts of this tournament... isn't there a soccer channel for that kind of thing yet? (If not, there probably should be.)

2006-06-13 14:48:22
9.   adg
Univision is anyways the way to go. Even if you don't understand Spanish, you can listen to anything at all while enjoying soccer.

The whole announcer thing is overblown when it comes to soccer on tv.

2006-06-13 14:51:14
10.   Bob Timmermann
I can understand your attitude and it's a lot more polite than many other people who seem to be personally offended that the World Cup is taking place.

It's not like it's displacing other events on ESPN or ABC. And even seemed to concentrate more on Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident than soccer.

For me, I like to see all the other countries. How many times in my life will I get to see the Togolese national team play. How else would I have learned that "Togolese" is the proper adjective to use?" (Well, I could have looked it up.)

But in baseball, I like to look at the other teams play. That's why I love my Extra Innings package. There's so much to see. I can spend a night watching the Royals play the Mariners.

I think what Mark is getting at (and I could be completely wrong) is that ESPN is trying to market soccer to an audience that doesn't really exist, i.e., the hardcore U.S. national team fan. There aren't many of those. If there were, the U.S. wouldn't be playing World Cup qualifiers all the time in places like Columbus, Foxborough, and Salt Lake City, to make it hard for Mexico and Central American teams to make it here and take over the stadiums.

The typical U.S. soccer fan is a fan of soccer. They probably have a favorite club in Europe or Latin America that they picked up while living there or through family and friends. They enjoy watching the World Cup because they get to see a whole bunch of top flight players that they never see any other time. It's like the baseball All-Star game except the games really, really, really count for a lot more.

2006-06-13 15:08:22
11.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Dan makes an interesting point. Fox Soccer Channel has perhaps spoiled us American soccer fans by providing coverage of the best international club teams, and world events apart from the Cup, that is completely egalitarian in its balance. FSC doesn't cover the MLS or Team USA games because ESPN has those rights. Instead they simply show the best teams -- Chelsea, Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona, Arsenal. I'm rooting for England in this World Cup because during the season I watch six or seven Premiership games on FSC and I'm most familiar with the players on the English roster. But of course there are also great French, Australian, Czech, Dutch, and Korean players in the EPL. The most prominent American in the Premier League is probably Brian McBride, who plays for Fulham, a mediocre side.

Maybe the answer for the U.S. is to overpay to get stars to come over and play in the MLS. The league's salary structure has quite deliberately been set up such that teams can use a colossal exception to bring in superstars...if they ever become available. David Beckham has talked idly about finishing his career in the U.S., but David Beckham is a much better talker than he is a player. The New York Red Bulls offered an enormous contract to Brazilian star Ronaldo but he turned them down.

Personally, as a sports fan I feel like the best way to sell soccer to Americans is to show them the very best teams, tell them the few basic things they need to know, and let the game speak for itself. The last couple Champions League Finals, Euro '04, the FA Cup Final just a month ago -- soccer has been unbelievably exciting lately, and I don't feel that the fact that Team USA hasn't been involved in any of this excitement should keep Americans from appreciating this.

If I wanted to show someone who knew nothing about baseball how the game is meant to be played, I would show them a White Sox game on TV before exposing them to the Rockies. Does the relative lack of American stars in men's tennis right now somehow make Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer's rivalry less interesting? Not to me. Oh, and the best player in the NBA is a German guy. Who loves David Hasselhoff, natch.

Maybe you don't go right from nonfan to intense engagement in Korea-Togo, but watch one of the marquee matchups coming up. Italy-Czech Republic, or Argentina-Netherlands, or Mexico-Portugal. Not to mention some of the pairings we could see in the knockout rounds. If most Americans aren't interested in watching some of the best athletes in the world driving themselves to the brink of exhaustion and beyond for love of country because they aren't OUR athletes and it's not OUR country, than I don't like most Americans.

Well, I already knew that, really.

2006-06-13 15:16:45
12.   Prescott Pete
Hi Dan. Bob's post pretty much said it all for me. Quite frankly, I don't care if the rest of America gets it or not.

I enjoy the international matchups, the stars of the game, the teamwork, the passing, the skill.

The knockout phase will be incredible.

2006-06-13 17:20:46
13.   Vishal
i like soccer. it's a good game, and fun to watch. even a tense, low-scoring game is okay if well-played. but to watch an entire match and have 0-0 be an acceptable outcome is B.S. give me winners and losers or else what's the point. if it comes down to penalty kicks, so be it. but there had better be a RESULT. a tie is not a result. they were tied before the game even started.
2006-06-13 19:55:35
14.   Dan Lucero
11 - re: Mexico v Portugal - Will we see all our favorite stars, like Ariaga, Ariaga II, Bariaga, Aruglia, and Pizzozza?

I'll kill myself if Portugal doesn't win.

I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist the Simpsons reference.

2006-06-14 10:14:45
15.   Voxter
I don't understand why Americans can't abide a tie. College football had ties as an acceptable outcome for 90-odd years before changing the rules, and teams didn't even get any credit for said ties. A draw IS a result. You get one point for it. It complicates the scorekeeping system and avoids the folly of allowing entire matches between equally-matched teams to come down to something as arbitrary as goal kicks, at least until such a thing becomes absolutely neccessary for the purpose of elimination. Anyway. I actually came to talk about the bloodbath -- er, match -- so, here it goes:

Among the myriad flaws the US team has, the two most glaring for me were:

1) An inability to win the ball in the air. I understand that the Czech team is full of tall, beefy guys, but America's squad must have won less than 10% of the 50-50 air challenges the other day. That's unacceptable, and it's impossible to play winning football that way. My friend Stiny said, quote, "I keep waiting for them to break out in a rendition of 'We Represent the Lollipop Guild'." (I was expecting them to all go piling into a clown car at any minute, but that's something else entirely.) But it's not just that our team is short. It's also that they're unathletic and wimpy. If you can't muscle, you'd better be able to jump. If you can't do either, you're f'ed, because every time the ball goes airborne, it's a foregone conclusion that the opposing side is going to come down with it. Ugh.

2) A total lack of creativity at the front, paired with a shattering timidity with possession near the goalmouth. Nobody seemed to have any ideas in the attacking third: passes were lazy, unimaginitive, frequently retrograde; runs ranged from unenthusiastic to non-existent; crosses found their way into Cech's hands way more often than they did to the head or feet of an American attacker. Then, when there WAS a shot available, nobody seemed to want to take it. I seem to remember half a dozen times when guys would get the ball near the goalmouth, run forward a bit, and then attempt to find someone who was completely unmarked rather than take a shot with any Czech bodies within a yard of them. As my old U-16 coach used to tell us, "You can't score if you don't shoot!"

Then, of course, there were things such as slipshod back play, an almost complete inability to maintain possession in the mid, and the fact that Kasey Keller, bless him, is getting old in a hurry.

Can the US beat Italy? In theory, yes. Much like baseball, anything can happen in football. In reality? It would take a miracle. I suspect the only way America's going to avoid getting shut out for the tournament is to squak a goal against Ghana. Yeesh.

(Final note: I am SO TIRED of Landon Donovan. He's short, he's not quick enough to be a striker, and he goes to pieces the instant his cleats touch German soil. He should play mid, and he should never leave America. If, like the Olympics, the World Cup were played in the States every other time around, he'd be fine. Unfortunately for him, we're unable to bully this site selection committee like we do some others.)

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