Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bud's crashing the Beer Garden

The most advertising dollars spent this year by the American King of Beers, Anhueser Busch, won't be for the Super Bowl or even the Winter Olympics. Bud execs are turning their attention and dollars with the rest of the world to Germany and the 2006 World Cup as reported by Business Week.

While the American masses had their heads down in the cultural sand, Bud, Nike, Master Card recognized soccer is the world's most loved, most watched, and most global game. According to the article, in 2002, 1.1 billion people worldwide watched Brazil defeat Germany in the World Cup final, while only 3.9 million Americans viewed the game.

Nike, the pulse of cool in American sports, caught on early. American sports fans will be familiar with the swift force with which they worked their way into a obtuse golf apparel and equipment industry riding coat tails of Tiger's green jackets. What they might not have known was that while Nike was busy crafting dri-Fit underwear for Tiger, they were also working their way into the world soccer scene, acquiring uniform contracts with clubs like Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United and national teams like Brazil, Mexico, and the US.

Now the rest of the corporate world is following suit, which has led some folks around the world calling the World Cup too commercial.

How will this affect the popularity of the game in the US, you ask? In a way this is a good sign, Americans tend to go where our cultural barometers of cool take us. You have probably already seen more commercials for soccer this year than you did in 2002. And because those 1.1 billion viewers of the World Cup final aren't going anywhere, neither will our faithful American brands.

This time around, it seems the American masses might just pay attention as well. As they say in Mississippi, I'll go anywhere they'll let you drink a Bud. But, I doubt they'll be filling the beer steins with Dale Jr's in Munich.

The US Soccer Media: Who Are These Nerds?

Check out USA Today's World Cup blog if you'd like to vomit.

Here we go again. Where do these "soccer journalists" keep coming from? Pictured above are USA Today's World Cup bloggers. Their blog is titled "Soccer Sweep: Covering all angles on the 2006 World Cup." Of course, Reckless Abandon might have gotten into this blogging thing too late to cover the cup for USA Today, but one of soccer's image problems is that guys like this comprise 95% of the US media's soccer coverage. The media constantly portrays the game in America as something it's not. It makes it look like some hobby sport for dorks—a glorified Ultimate Frisbee. The US media never conveys the true emotional text in the game, it’s most elemental appeal. They never explain that it takes a group of men to shove three goals in Portugal’s ass in the first thirty minutes of a World Cup.

These guys are wearing their intramural jerseys from their college days at the University of Michigan or something of that ilk. They are apparently qualified to blog for a national publication because they "played" soccer in back in college and have loosely followed it since then. Ok, these are fabricated assumptions, but I use them to illustrate how these guys from "Soccer Sweep" are yet another example of a broad trend in the game which I'm generalizing about.

Soccer Sweep is written inelegantly too. The syntax in their tagline, "Covering all angles on the 2006 World Cup" is as awkward as they look in their picture. It's as awkward as Sam's Army's web design. The preposition "on" just doesn't fit either. Not to mention, the sentence is just plain boring and obtuse.

Check out the Soccer Sweep's first sentence from Wednesday's post:

"With 'Captain America' Claudio Reyna leaving last night's friendly against Morocco with a sore hamstring, and with several other big-time players in question for Germany, let's take a quick glance at ailments around the globe."

Let's just gloss over world soccer in a few paragraphs because it's sure not to inspire interest from the American mainstream. And, let's also make sure that everyone who reads our blog and doesn’t know Reyna's nickname will think that he’s the little brother of Ace and Gary from SNL’s “Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Journalism like this only exacerbates soccer's image problem in the US. We need original story tellers, fresh journalism. We need our own, American nickname for Reyna.

Guys like this are a detriment to the American game. Bruce Arena knows this. Just listen to one of his press conferences, or check out Reckless Abandon's post Arena Plays the Media (Again). Arena constantly has to field uninformed questions. It seems that, since soccer is so foreign to many people in this country and also most managing editors at publications across the nation, it must be easy to convince them that you have what it takes to cover soccer. The result is a very low standard of soccer journalism being disseminated across the country. And, raising the quality of soccer journalism is another crucial step towards raising the level of the US game.

The good news is that the "Soccer Sweep" crowd is on the way out. Soccer in America is entering a new era, beginning with the interest the US team will generate with a good performance in this World Cup. It's time to move from the ultimate frisbee and suburban kiddie crowd to a culture of real soccer—reckless soccer. This game is real, and the rest of the world knows it. Its only a matter of time until we usher in a true American game and soccer culture. We thank all of you nerds, kids, moms, and people who couldn't find friends in other sports for helping us get us to this point. But, now it’s time to take things up a notch.

Reckless Abandon is here to do its part to that end. Keep in touch; it's only a matter of time.

Why Losing to Morocco Doesn't Matter

The US loss to Morocco yesterday in Nashville was disappointing for fans, but Bruce Arena and the team did not seem to be that worried. Some might be quick to blame complacency, Steve Cherundolo, Arena's subbing, or any number of things for the loss. There are many reasons why we shouldn't be cursing our guys just yet.

I remember the feeling heading into Regionals during my club team's U-18 campaign. We were poised to do damage, at least that's what we were telling ourselves. Considered middle-tiered team at best, we had finally broken through five months before at the Tampa Sun Bowl tournament advancing from our bracket easily and finally getting put out in a heated semifinal match 0-1, a contest we thought we should have won.

We felt unbeatable, something every youth team experiences after their first taste of any real success. We had some new players join the team and never before had our club fielded a more talented team than ours. And we were being reminded how good we were-every member of our team was offered a scholarship to play college soccer after the Sun Bowl. We started to believe it. The first game of the Regional Tournament arrived and we were facing a team from New Orleans that we had beaten on a number of occasions. We felt that if we were only patient, we would win the game easily and go on briskly through the competition. Sitting back and waiting turned into three goals allowed and a quick sweeping loss that dashed our hopes and reminded us who we were.

If anything, this loss to Morocco reminds our MNT and our fans who and where we are. We are still a developing soccer nation with a solid, hard-working, middle-tier National team who, if we play with cohesive hunger, is capable of beating anyone in the world. It reinforces that we are not going to salvage our way through the Group of Death by hoping for ties late in 0-0 matches—we must be proactive. But, Arena and our players know this already.

Arena took blame for the loss, claiming he had been overtraining the guys. McBride mentioned a lack of creativity in the attack. We hadn't lost on US soil since early in 2005 to England. I don't think any American in the crowd expectued us to lose. I imagine that the players felt the same way.

Sometimes a loss before bigger games to come is a good thing. It clears out the cobwebs.

Reckless Abandon predicts a more focused, hungry effort tomorrow night against Venezuela.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Impressions from Nashville

May 24, 2006
Nashville, TN

All the elements were in place. The soccer gods turned the weather dial to a clear blue 78 degrees. Kids donning Donovan jerseys used SUVs as goals while Reckless Abandon drank beer in the parking lot. Fair-weather American soccer fans, youth soccer organization parents, and their kids flowed past, each wearing their only soccer jersey, since apparently it is cool to wear any soccer jersey to any soccer game: "AC Milan; Brazil; Manchester United; 1998 Southern Regional Soccer Championship, Edmond, OK; Bob Jones Soccer; Brentwood Soccer Club; The Dave Mathews Band Soccer." Still, despite its poor taste, suburbia was out in earnest to support our team. Fifteen minutes into the game, there was still a steady influx of people coming in the lower bowl of the Coliseum. The crowd was salivating for the US team to do something big, but unfortunately they couldn’t deliver.

We got off to a slow start. Reyna went down early, it seemed as a precaution to protect a tight hamstring. O’ Brien looked anemic at first—like an out-of-shape high school player—but by the end of the second half, he settled in and reminded us why he should be on the field with some cunning, laser-accurate passes. In one particularly deft play, he threaded the ball precisely through three Moroccan’s at an impeccable pace to, I think, Josh Wolff cutting in from the sideline.

Morocco's defense worked with the efficiency of an ant farm to get numbers behind the ball all night, and though we controlled possession throughout most of the first half, we went into halftime with nothing resolved.

For the second half we switched formations. That's something American fans will see a lot of from Arena in Germany as we tailor our tactics to exploit opponents. Convey came in on the outside midfield. Mastroeni began playing a more defensive Midfield role, and Gooch moved to the outside. Of course, Cherundolo's mistake conceded the only goal in the 90th minute, but he didn’t look that bad the rest of the night.

Convey brought the energy level up in the attack, and late in the second half we started creating some decent chances on goal. When the crowd finally had something to get excited about, they were eager to make some noise. If this had been an exciting game it could have gotten rowdy. (Check out the video podcasts at US Soccer's website. There is some good footage of the crowd response.)

All in all, the result of this game doesn’t matter. As far as PR for US soccer goes in Nashville and TN, we needed a win. Reckless Abandon overheard some guys in front us say, "I can't believe we lost to Morocco; the only thing it's good for is being a place to send hippies away from here."

But, as far as getting the team ready for the Czech Republic goes, we’re right on track. I think Bruce was able to do some much needed evaluation, and a few players emerged as solid-as-a-rock.

Gooch was the most consistent player on the field, making virtually no mistakes all night. His mass and strength nicely complement Pope's cool. These two together will be an asset for the US in Germany. US fans should feel good about the prospect of Gooch anchoring our back line for the next 10-12 years. And, Eddie Pope was solid and kept us organized well (except on the goal). Reckless can't wait to see Gooch, Pope, McBride, and Johnson all in the box on a set piece in Germany. This will be dangerous; it will be reckless.

Donovan looked solid, as did McBride, although they were not getting any service. Mastroeni played well too.

Dempsey came in on the outside right at the end of the game and he looked like silk. He will definitely be playing in Germany when we need to attack. At times he is the most creative attacker and was smooth on the ball last night. He and Reyna have the best touch on our team.

The rest remains to be seen. We’ve still got time, but everything looks like we’ll be ready to play on June 12. Never mind this loss; no one will remember it three weeks from now.

—Lee McAlilly
Reckless Abandon Soccer

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Arena Plays the Media (Again)

Bruce Arena provided some classic quotes at a media session yesterday after the MNT trained at the Coliseum in Nashville, TN, where the team will face Morocco tomorrow as a part of the “World Cup Send-Off Series.”

The US soccer media continues to ask stupid questions. And, Arena continues to display his wit in volleying back.

Just as in 2002, reporters are hung-up on lineups for the World Cup. And, of course, Arena is notorious for never announcing a lineup. When will these people learn? Arena tells you everything that you need to know, but these middle aged reporters never hear what he’s really saying.

This all reminds me of the media ineptitude following Bob Dylan on his 1966 European Tour. The media circus that was around Dylan is featured on the Scorsese documentary “No Direction Home.” In one particularly telling scene a consciously intellectual young, French woman journalist forcefully asks in heavy accent, “Why? Why do you sing?” And Dylan, who had become increasingly irritated and drained from fielding the media’s uniformed questioning responds, “Because I feel like singing.”

Some highlights from yesterday’s interview include:

Reporter 1: In your mind right now, for the Czech game, for your lineup…

Arena: I’m not working on my lineup right now. I have a game tomorrow, in Nashville, against Morocco.

Reporter 1: You aren’t…(cut off by Arena)

Arena: We might all get hit by a bus after the game tomorrow. I’m not working on my lineup for the Czech game right now. That’s the God’s honest truth. You must think I’m insane, I guess, right?

Reporter 2: Bruce how many starting spots do you think would be open? Or do you—

Arena: I don’t look at it that way. You know, I mean, write a story about players, the game, whatever, don’t worry about the opening game yet. There’s a lot of stuff that happens between now and then. If you asked me this question four years ago—“Who’s gonna be in the starting line-up against Portugal?”—do you think I would have come close? I would have missed a few for sure. So, you gotta wait.

Then later, Bruce took an opportunity to “coach” the media.

Reporter 3: Why do you think it is important for American players to have an American coach?

Arena: I haven’t said that.

Reporter 3: Well there seems to be that school of thought.

Arena: I don’t hire the coaches so I can’t tell you that.

Reporter 3: Do you think American players would perform better with an American coach? Is there something about understanding the American psyche?

Arena: I think you should talk to the players about it. You know, they’re the best ones to answer. But you know, if you’re gonna take a job as a sportswriter somewhere. I think if your specialty’s in American basketball, then the United States is probably the best place to be doing it. If you’re an experienced coach in soccer in America and you’re coaching the American team, there’s probably a lot of positives about that. That would be my reply to that.

Reporter 3: You’re probably aware, or maybe not, that a couple of the players have called you a genius, which I’m sure you hate. But, why—(cut off by Arena)

Arena: I’ve called myself a genius.

Reporter 3: I wasn’t expecting that—

Arena: No, I think they’re complimentary, but the last thing I’ve ever been accused of is being a genius. So that might be off a little bit. I think I’m a good coach.

Reporter 3: Why?

Arena: I know how to put a team together.

And finally my favorite,

Arena: (talking about the magnitude of the World Cup in response to a question about what would be a breakthrough game for American soccer)

You start in a process that began four years ago with 204-5 teams and now you’re down to 32. That’s the real animal. And maybe in this country no one understands that because we have our nice little, not little, nice professional leagues where we call whoever turns out the winner the world champion, which is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard…and never win a world championship in any of these sports anymore. This is it, this is the real world champion in sport.

Reporter 4: It’s not just beating Czech Republic, but just beating Italy, just beating Ghana, or even—(cut off by Arena)

Arena: Well believe it or not, those are pretty impressive performances for a country, on the world stage.
You know, you don’t understand that because you’re so used to, “Nashville beats Jacksonville, we’re gonna party in the streets.”

These are the best teams in the world, in the most competitive sport in the world. And, if we can build an American team to that stage, that’s pretty impressive. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time.

Reading these exchanges in print sacrifices the intonation and, thus, much of the humor and effect. So, for the full audio version of Monday’s Arena-time check out the US Soccer podcast.

For local news coverage of the Morocco game, check out the Nashville City Paper.

Reckless Abandon is anxiously awaiting more of these media sessions with Bruce.

—Lee McAlilly

Former UVA Soccer Camp Counselor Ben Olsen

Though primarily a right-sided player, Ben Olsen has proven versatile enough to play on either flank for both club and country. His athleticism and amazing work rate have brought him enormous success at the youth international level and with his Major League Soccer club, D.C. United.

Former UVA Soccer Camp camper Wilson Long recalls:
"He would always come in hungover in the morning, and he had pink eye the entire week I was there, so he looked pretty rough. We would spend the first hour of practice playing some game where we would gamble dollar bills over whether or not our team could hit the crossbar from the top of the 18 before he could. If he went down, he'd make us go double-or-nothing until he was back on top. I remember him making a few of the kids pay-up, and we were twelve-years-old. Isn't it illegal for NCAA athletes to gamble? He was in college at the time."

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Friendly vs. Morocco

As Germany approaches, National teams around the world prepare in different ways. BBC's World Cup podcast recently reported that the Argentinian team is so unfamiliar with one another, due to youth and club players around the world, that they flew from South America to Spain last week for a meet and greet and film sessions. Not only was the coach not planning on practicing, they weren't even planning to watch film of their World Cup opponents—they watched film of their own players.

International friendlies are a key part of all national team's preparation. Organizing a pre-Sorld Cup friendly with a team like Morocco is like your older brother designing a board game that only he can win. Its a way to build confidence by kicking someone's ass, practice tactics, and maybe experiment with a new few goal celebrations. Teams around the globe schedule games with mediocre competition in order to gain chemistry, simulate tactical situations, and gel as a unit. The US won't be trying to win, per se, but they aren't trying to get beat either. They want our players to gain confidence and chemistry in a more competitive environment than camp. It is what it is, a warm-up game.

What we can expect to see tomorrow out of our friendly with Morrocco is an introduction. How will Dempsey, Gooch, Johnson, and Ching mesh with the chemistry McBride, Reyna, Beasley, Pope and Donovan, established in 2002? What might Bruce Arena be planning to do tactically? Will Keller look nimble? Has our team hit its stride or do we still need some juice to reach cruising altitude?

The World Cup is nearing. Its time to buckle-up.

Chris McAlilly