Cuff: Some advice to help soccer grow in the U.S.

Cuff: Some advice to help soccer grow in the U.S.
July 3, 2014, 2:30 pm
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It’s been nearly 48 hours since the U.S. Men’s National Team was bounced from the World Cup by Belgium in extra time. I’ve followed this team closely throughout this World Cup cycle; I was part of, and listened to, all the commentary before the event, and have done the same since the Round of 16 exit.  Now it’s time to look forward, and I have something to say to just about everyone as it relates to the USMNT and soccer in general.  

TO HARDCORE SOCCER FANS:  I start here because, admittedly, I fall into this category. To them I say: We need to mature as a fan base. 

First, we have to demand more of our squad.  No more moral victories.  We shouldn't celebrate making it out of the group and be fine with a round of 16 exit.  We should support our team no matter what, yes, but we should be just as critical in defeat as we would of any professional team we support. Soccer is growing in this country. We no longer need to simply promote the sport (Tim Howard even said this); we need to demand success and critique failure. 

Second, stop trying to convert people who have no interest in the sport.  I used to do this, too, but it's futile and makes no sense.  If someone told you they like Major League Baseball but not the National Football League, we wouldn’t respond by saying, “What, you don’t like the NFL? Well, here’s why you should . . . "  Just stop trying to jam it down people’s throats. If someone is interested and wants to know more about soccer, of course that’s great. But if not . . . who cares?

That leads me to the third point: Take all kinds. Quit looking down your nose if they don’t use terms that are prevalent in world soccer (world football) such as nil, pitch, etc.  We know them, but who cares if others don’t use them? It doesn’t demonstrate your fandom, level of interest, or understanding of the game. I don’t agree with everything Keith Olbermann said last night in his show, but we need our soccer to be American. We should take any fan, any way we can get them on board.  And the way we are as fans, the words we use, how we talk about the game and our style of play should become purely American. 

TO THE CASUAL FANS: Glad you caught the fever and supported the U.S. team with such fervor.  It was great to have you on board, but hold on . . . don’t jump off yet. There are still more World Cup games.

After that, give MLS a look. The New England Revolution are battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re a young and talented team that’s fun to watch and nearly every game is on Comcast SportsNet (shameless plug).

If you try that out and don’t like it, don’t give up. The English Premier League begins August 16, shockingly only six weeks away.  A lot of the players you’ve grown familiar with in this World Cup -- and many whom you saw in the Belgium game -- play in this league.  (Tim Howard is the goalie for Everton.) NBC Sports Network’s coverage was fantastic last year (another shameless plug) and games are on every single weekend. Tune in, see the passion and skill. You won't be disappointed. 

But even if you are, the Champions League is the most elite soccer on the planet, even better than the World Cup.  These are the top teams from each domestic league in Europe competing against each other.  The Champions League begins in September and culminates with a champion in May.  These matches are played midweek and are on Fox Sports. If you want to see the best of the best, this is where to find them. 

TO THE HATERS:  If you don’t like the sport, that’s totally fine and I respect that.  But what I don’t understand is the desire to mock soccer and make jokes. "Does anyone ever score?" “What’s a nil?” “A pitch is in baseball, not a field!” “Are they gonna bring out the stretcher?” Etc., etc., etc.  They’re always the same, never creative, never humorous.  It’s like watching the “comedian” Gallagher every day; you sound and look stupid, not funny.

And stop saying no one cares.  I hope the ratings alone for this World Cup  (over 20 million watched the Belgium game on all platforms) will put this to bed. If not, consider that the NBCSN Premier League coverage has received great ratings and was growing every month last season.  People care, people watch, people love the game in America.  It may not be the NFL, but the EPL is watched just as much as hockey and more than many of the MLB national broadcasts this year.  Just like I said before to hardcore soccer fans: If someone tells you they like hockey, you don’t mock them. So why mock soccer?  Let it go and move on. You enjoy your sports and we’ll enjoy ours.

TO THE GENERAL SPORTS WRITER:  If you’re over 45, stop saying you’ve been hearing for 40 years that soccer will be big. That argument's irrelevant.  If you want to debate the quality of American soccer, or whether patriotism drove World Cup ratings, or whether there are too many American sports for fans to focus on soccer . . . those are all legitimate discussions that are worth having. But . . . 

The "This is what I’ve heard for years" argument is dead. Soccer’s demo is strong among the 12-17 and 18-34 males. For those of us who fall in those groups, we haven't been hearing for years that soccer is the next big thing. More importantly, we don't care what you've heard and experienced.  We only know what we see, who we’ve talked to and what our friends and us watch. 

Achieving success in this country will be a long-term process for soccer. It’ll take 20-30 years to possibly become a world power and maybe have a Top Four league in the world.  Therefore, those who fall into the under-34 crew are who truly matter here. Many of them have yet to determine what sports they will prioritize to watch and which teams will occupy their time, let alone know how those interests will impact their kids . . . who will be the generation after us as sports fans. That said, many have already put soccer at the top of their consumption list, along with the NFL. In the battle for what’s next, we have the consumer buying power and it’s our generation on the ascension. 

TO THE ANALYSTS: Similar to what I said to the hardcore fan: Demand more.

After the loss to Belgium Alexi Lalas took a pounding for his first comments, which were about having pride in the way the U.S. battled and played.  He’s a former American player -- and when he played, the Americans were simply trying to earn respect on the world stage -- so I can understand why he'd say that. Yes, they did battle. But why should that be celebrated? That should be a given.

Just a minute or so after that, Michael Ballack (former Germany captain) said flat out the U.S. lacked the technical quality. Both Lalas and former U.S. goalie Kasey Keller agreed and expounded on that thought, which is good.  But the first comment should  have been: The better team won. Belgium dominated play, took 27 shots and should have won going away. To be proud of how our team battles isn't analysis; in fact, it's a loser’s mentality.  We would never celebrate any of our professional teams for that.  We would say they failed to win, this is why, here's where they need to get better . . . and as an addendum, yes, they fought hard. But that's in our DNA.  We’ll always acknowledge it but we have to stop hanging our hat on it.  We have to call the team out when it's technically deficient, change how we develop players and expect results. 

You may recognize this guy and his assessment of U.S. soccer.  I understand where we are in the hierarchy of soccer nations, but to be the best we have to demand the best.  In no other sport or area does America just accept being second -- never mind being 12th to 16th (which is about where we are) -- but in soccer, we do. No more. Demand excellence, and only celebrate that. 

TO THE TEAM: Not dumb enough to assume anyone on the USMNT will actually read this, but I’m writing it anyway: Time for some real self-reflection. Please don’t be happy with this performance. For those of you who won’t play in another World Cup, yes, you’ve built a strong foundation. But there's so much more to accomplish. 

There’s a lot of young talent on this roster and in the U.S. player pool.  Jurgen Klinsmann is locked in for four more years. He unearthed talented players from everywhere, and every button he pushed worked from a tactical perspective.  All the pieces are set up from a roster perspective.

Now the onus is on the players to get to the best clubs, where they can play at the highest level and improve their skills. Yes, there’s a stigma about American players overseas, but that’s just an excuse.  As my dad used to always tell me: If you’re good enough, they’ll find you. 

Lastly, we have big tournaments coming up that will keep the U.S. in the national consciousness going forward.  The 2016 Copa America -- the South American Championship, being played here because it's the tournament's centennial celebration and the South American Football Confederation decided to have an expanded competition that included the U.S. for the first time -- will be hosted in the Unites States.  The 10 South American teams, with all their talent and global names, will be coming here to compete against six CONCACAF teams (the U.S., Mexico, and four other teams from our qualifying region). This will provide a huge litmus test for our team as well as build more momentum and support without having to wait until 2018 when the World Cup is in Russia.  On home soil, regardless of this incredibly stiff competition, our goal has to be winning it all. Not making it to the semifinals, not making it to the finals, but winning the Cup. 

TO FIFA: You are undoubtedly the most corrupt organization in the history of sports . . . and maybe the history of the world.  The most amazing thing is you hardly hide this corruption and almost splash it in the world’s face on a monthly basis with one debacle after another.  This is your time to do something right for the consumer, not for your illegally lined pockets. 

Pull the 2022 World Cup from Qatar and re-vote. Or, ideally, give it to the United States, the second-place finisher in the original voting.

I had the fortune of going to the U.S. World Cup games against Portugal and Germany in Brazil. Hands down, these were the best sporting events I’d ever seen. The passion on gameday, the excitement of the lead up, even the camaraderie with nations you're about to play . . . it's so unique. From the moment I touched down in Brazil, it just felt special and I knew something amazing was happening. 

Brazil was a terrific host country capable of handling the logistics.  The airports were all great, the cities were well prepared, and the experience was amazing.  It was only enhanced by a Brazilian culture that just loves soccer and a people that were excited to host this event (despite the protests on opening day; there were no other problems and everyone seemed so into it).

FIFA, don't rob the world of the 2022 World Cup. Qatar’s entire World Cup experience would be limited to one city (Doha), it’s over 100 degrees there in the summer when the World Cup is normally played (and if you move it to the fall it will disrupt so many leagues worldwide), you cannot drink in Qatar (that sounds like hell), and the workers building the stadiums are suffering and dying because of absurd labor laws (it's estimated there'll be 4,000 deaths before ball kicked off in 2022). Lastly -- and most importantly -- the bid was almost certainly secured by bribes. 

Do something right. Give the World Cup to the U.S. in 2022. We’ve just proven we will celebrate it appropriately and put on a show unlike the world has ever seen . . . in a newly formed pro soccer nation.