This weekend might have been the end of the American soccer boom that many pundits and fans had predicted would result from a deep Yank run combined with a serious push by ESPN/ABC to market the matches. The ratings are up tremendously over 2006, which was played in essentially the same time-zone, over the same month. It is possible that Americans are growing to love soccer, but I doubt it. I had a conversation with a friend, who is a once-every-four-years viewer:
Captain: You must be happy now that 2/3 of the World Cup audience in America has turned off their TV and stopped going to the bar.
Me: Well, other than the fact that they lost, perhaps. And I said that I appreciated new fans, I just want them to stay or care for the next four years. … But, then, maybe soccer = swimming.
Which, bummer city. Both that folks aren’t as likely to watch now that the US is out, and that the US is out. But, this weekend was so frustrating for me because I saw how frustrating it was to casual/new fans of the game. Even though I’m used to it by now, the mistakes, blown calls and egregious errors of the officials drove my friends crazy all weekend. In watching England-Germany, as play continued despite the fact that Frank Lampard’s audacious chip cleared the goal line by two yards, a friend asked, “Aren’t they going to stop and change that?” “No. No replay.” “Like baseball then?” “Yup.” “Isn’t this game too fast for that?” “Yup.” “That’s stupid.” The English would have leveled the score had Lampard’s goal counted, which would have changed the complexion of the game and not forced the English to open up their defense and charge forward quite so much, leading to the Germans’ two successive goals. No denying England were shit, nor that Germany were the better team, but the officials ended the mystery long before the players did, and that’s a problem.
Welcome to my world.
Hours later, Carlos Tevez scored in a position so offside that someone with the vaguest understanding of the rule ought to have been shouting in protest. The linesman (guy with the pretty flag on the sideline) caught a glimpse of the replay on the stadium’s Jumbotron and seemed like he wanted to change the call, but the rules explicitly bar that. Indeed, in order to ease tension amongst fans and players, controversial replays aren’t usually even allowed to be shown inside the stadium.
And it’s at this point that I have to bring out the Big Lebowski: “This is a league game. It determines who enters the next round robin. Has the whole world gone crazy?! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?!“ When people who are unaccustomed to the vagaries(! First ever use of this word on this site? Plausible!) and vicissitudes of officiating, its downright capriciousness at times, weekends like the one just concluded don’t bring fans rushing to its side. Why pay attention when a team’s hard work (the US team denied 2 goals in the group stage, nearly costing them the chance to compete in the knockouts) isn’t the defining factor in a match’s outcome? I have a hard time answering that, and all the solutions I’ve bandied about with friends and fanatics, like a second ref on the pitch, goal-line technology, replay on momentous offsides including some kind of continuation rule, won’t solve the problem we’ve just had: thousands, if not millions, of fans turned off to a wonderful sport not because of the sport itself, but the way its officiated.
That said, it was not officiating that sent my head slamming into a table after 120 minutes on Saturday afternoon. It was not officiating that crashed the US out against Ghana. It was not officiating that allowed Kevin-Prince Boateng to run free onto goal within five minutes of the opening whistle, and Assamoah Gyan the space to maneuver in extra time. In the preview, I noted that Boateng v Bradley and Gyan v the US centerbacks would be the key battles. They were the two scorers, though Bradley was not at fault for the Boateng goal. Which brings me to the other thing I was right about before the match: “Ghana aren’t going to come out guns blazing, I doubt, but if handed a gift-wrapped opportunity, they’ll take it and shut up shop, putting 10 men behind the ball and daring the US to break it down (which, to be honest, is not the US’s strong suit by a mile).” Well, I usually like being right, but on this occasion I hate it.
That fifth minute goal by Boateng can be laid at the feet of three men, two on the field and one off it. Ricardo Clark played a scandalously stupid game by dithering with the ball and then essentially playing it right to KPB. Compounding the initial mistake, Clark then didn’t even bother to track back and close him down, hoping his cover might be up to task. And for once in this tournament, really the only time, Tim Howard made a poor decision, caught in two minds as KPB approached and helplessly flapped at it as it went past.
That it was able to go down like that is down to the man off the field, the one who sent the players onto it. Clark looked atrocious and out of his depth every minute he played this World Cup, and his track record didn’t suggest he would suddenly take some great leap forward in skill or confidence after being benched for the best three halves the US played in the group. He was subbed after 30 minutes for the player many assumed would start, Maurice Edu(I didn’t even mention Clark because I figured he was completely out of favor after Edu’s play against Slovenia and Algeria). Robbie Findley at striker didn’t bring anything to the table either, nor had he, other than being both wasteful and profligate in front of goal, squandering chances like a drunk engineering student at a sorority party. Feilhaber came on at half, pushed Dempsey and Donovan up, gave Altidore some support, and the game changed. But it wasn’t enough, and a great strike by Gyan in extra time — which the US was lucky to get to after they were awarded a hilariously soft penalty — sent them home.
I’ll have more of a post-mortem on the US when the whole thing concludes and the ratings are in and I’ve had more time to digest a loss that crushed me in a way I would never have expected. I suppose that means that soccer has definitely arrived for me, and I told an English friend of mine that I’d have preferred to lose as England did, because they were (sorry, D) so obviously outclassed and had the built-in excuse of an officiating debacle. We have only the team to blame. But also, we have the team to thank for a pretty remarkable run that introduced a large group of people to a sport they’d never paid mind to before. Let’s hope at least a couple of them (you?) will stick around after the US gets on their plane.