Thursday, June 22, 2006

Alas, World Cup

In order to advance to the elimination rounds, the US needed to beat Ghana today in its third and final group match. Realistically, it also needed the Italians to beat the Czechs.

Well, the Italians beat the Czechs (2-0). But the US lost.

Ghana beat us 2-1. That means Italy and Ghana advance from the group, and the US and the Czech Republic go home. The US finishes a disappointing 0-2-1 in this World Cup.

(Kudos, on the other hand, to Ghana, who deservedly go through to the second round during their first World Cup appearance.)

Fundamentally, we brought this loss on ourselves. My take is that today's loss came from a combination of insufficiently aggressive coaching–especially an overly defensive line-up and substitutions–and from a couple key defensive mistakes that gave Ghana easy goals. Although, to be fair, only one of those misakes led directly to to a goal. The other one led directly to a really unjustified referee's decision to award a penalty kick, which is essentially a free goal. Disappointing.

This World Cup team, many thought, was the best we've sent to the World Cup. On paper, it's a better squad than the one what went to South Korea-Japan in 2002. That team made it to the quarterfinals (the best the US has done in the modern World Cup era). Anybody who knew soccer knew that we'd been put in a very tough group, advancing from which was far from a guarantee. Still, given the talent on the squad, US fans expected at least a better showing.

The US's lackluster showing may well get US manager Bruce Arena canned. And a lot of soccer fans in the US worry that it will damage soccer's image in the US. That's possible, I suppose, but I think the sport is making solid inroads and will continue to do so. We already have a huge percentage of boys (and girls) playing soccer until about 10 or 12 years of age. With a professional league (Major League Soccer) for our best male athletes to look forward to, I suspect we'll continue to have more boys join the girls in playing soccer through their teens.

A lot of Americans enjoy insisting that soccer is a ridiculous fringe sport that no red-blooded (English-speaking) American would watch. But that's less and less true. For example, I discovered recently, for example, that the highest Nielsen rating ever for a game of the Stanley Cup finals was a 5.2. The US-Italy game last Saturday got a 5.2 on ESPN's English-language broadcast alone. I haven't seen the Univisión ratings for that game, but I'll bet conservatively that they 2.5-3.0, which makes for a pretty respectable audience.

Of course, the World Cup is a much bigger deal than, say, the MLS championship (which continues to get lousy ratings). But still, I suspect soccer is on its way to being a sport like hockey: passionately watched by some fans and occasionally watched by a lot of fans. It won't catch up with NASCAR (not a sport!) for a long time, if ever, and the same is probably true regarding football, basketball, and baseball. Although, baseball has problems of its own. In addition to all the doping controversy, pro baseball players in the US are getting older and older because fewer and fewer young people (at least percentagewise) are playing the game through their teens. And in Japan, long a baseball-crazy country, soccer is starting to make real inroads into the domestic market. So, maybe soccer has a chance to pick off at least one major US in the next 10 or 20 years.

Anyway, it's been a great World Cup so far. Just not for the US.


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