Thoughts from Sounderland — Back from break, beating the ‘Scum

There seems to be a weird infatuation in pockets of the American soccer community with the sport achieving “mainstream” status in our entertainment landscape.  While such ideals may have been relevant 20 years ago, when the USA hosted the World Cup and launched, in earnest, our participation in the World’s Favorite Thing, now we live in a post-mainstream era.  The very concept of “Mainstream” is almost entirely irrelevant, and it brings to mind the monolithic institutions of the past that existed when the world was a less connected.

There is no overstating the obvious — the internet changed everything.  The world consists of cultural niches now: music, movies, television and sports are all elements of a global culture that is virtually unlimited in its scope and variety.  Having said that, of course, soccer stands out as a nearly universally popular enterprise — one that I have previously suggested as being the most truly global in scope — which makes the World Cup unparalleled in its cultural significance.

The fact that Americans follow the World Cup is more an indicator of our post-mainstream acceptance of globalism than anything else.  The fact that certain political/social pundits wig out about it every four years has really nothing to do with the sport in question — it is merely the typical American Exceptionalist anxiety regarding the world being a more connected place.

Just like you can’t reasonably expect the millions of Americans who become armchair experts on human endeavors such as swimming, running, gymnastics, skiing and skating every four years to actually give much of a crap about those things when the Olympics aren’t on, you can’t expect the growing popularity of the World Cup to signify much more than the fact Americans have decided they don’t want to be left out of this giant world-wide party.  The World Cup is pretty awesome, and you don’t have to be a soccer fan to appreciate that.

It’s specious reasoning to assume that many of those folks are now going to become devoted soccer fans.  I personally can’t hold it against anyone without a direct rooting interest who may have turned off the Sounders-Timbers match at halftime.  It was, quite honestly, pretty bad up to that point, it was also after 11:00pm on the east coast on a Sunday night.  Hell, I rarely — if ever, if I’m being honest — watch regular season MLS matches that don’t involve the Sounders, so who am I to judge?

It has occurred to me over this last month that my love of soccer — as a global human enterprise and cultural touchstone, or as I have taken to calling it “The World’s Favorite Thing” — is almost mutually exclusive to my role within the game as a fan or supporter.  I set out to write these weekly Sounderland articles primarily from the perspective of the latter, but with the voice of the former — but I wonder if it isn’t the other way around.  It’s difficult for me to admit this, but during the World Cup I found myself having a really hard time being a fan or supporter, to the extent I was almost entirely indifferent whether the USA won, lost, or drew — but instead far more interested in what happened to arrive there.  Similarly, when the Sounders got back into action against actual professional teams it was almost an unwelcome distraction to have to worry about results.  I watched with detached bemusement the desultory 1-0 win against DC — an uninspiring match that felt as though it was only being played because someone had made the mistake of scheduling it.  Then against the Whitecaps I could barely bring myself to care we’d lost with a lineup that was simply incapable of winning 9/10 times against a decent opponent.

One of the things I like about soccer fans — well, most of us at least — is that the boredom and sheer stupidity of so many of the games we watch is readily apparent to us.  When a non-soccer person tells me that soccer is boring I don’t even argue the point, and usually just counter with “so is baseball.” Quality and style matters to us, because so often it is the only thing standing in the way between being entertained and suffering the sort of bizarre torture we’ll put ourselves through watching Argentina-Netherlands.  When it comes to the World Cup, by merely being a World Cup match, I’ll watch.  But can I ask someone in Philadelphia to care about Sounders-Timbers when I couldn’t really care less about Union-United?

Getting back to the USMNT for a moment, I was also struck by how many of the narratives I was hearing and reading surrounding the team, it’s games, and the post-elimination assessments were basically the same shit I’d been hearing and reading since at least 2002, if not all the way back to 1994.  It’s like politics, where the same tired talking points get re-wrapped every four years and nothing ever really changes.  Well, I shouldn’t say that… things change, but the more they do, the more they stay the same.

If we want to talk about what is “mainstream” in American sports the conversation begins — and maybe even ends — with tackle football.  The NFL is, for all intents and purposes, one and same with professional football.  Major-college tackle football is a monster that is largely fueled by “power conferences” hungry to control as much of the wealth generated from the sport as possible, and even operates in a manner that could be considered anti-competitive.  It is almost entirely an exclusively American enterprise.  The game has no real global footprint (no, playing the odd game in London and the fact a few people from other countries may watch non-Super Bowl NFL games does NOT give it a global footprint). The NFL is a monolithic institution, and I love it.  I really do.  The Seahawks winning the Super Bowl — or as I like to call it, the “Championship of America” — is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.  I will watch Auburn-Alabama just because it is a huge rivalry game, and won’t turn the game off at halftime if its boring, for fear I’ll miss an exciting second half.

But I also have utterly no desire for an American professional soccer league to be like the NFL.  In fact, I specifically DON’T want it to be like the NFL, I want it to be like a soccer league.  If this makes me a “Euro-snob” then I simply no longer give a fuck.  If this means that soccer will never be “mainstream” then I care even less.  Why does it matter if anything is mainstream, and who even CARES anymore?  You may say there is nothing about soccer that requires a certain league structure, and you may be right, but is that a reason or an excuse?  The idea that we need to do it differently for it to “work” here is tied to American Exceptionalism, which is itself an edifice of an antiquated way of thinking.  It’s a relic of a pre-globalized, mainstream-dominated way of thinking.

World Cup wrap up

With Germany’s win, its hard to argue that the best team didn’t win the World Cup.  It’s interesting to me that they did so with a roster offering up a rather dizzying selection of attacking midfielder/winger/”false 9″ types that would be the envy of even the greatest Spanish sides.

Much has been spoken of Germany’s “rebuilding” launched under Jurgen Klinsmann for the 2006 World Cup, but to appreciate that, you have to understand the legacy of success that is built into German football since the 1954.  There is a fascinating numerology in those 16 World Cups since then, with 12 semifinal appearances, eight final appearances, and now four championships.  The German federation was hardly starting from scratch and a bare cupboard, but their change in approach clearly worked.  They look to be a side with clear intentions of winning the next couple Euros and the 2018 World Cup.  It should be interesting to watch.

For the USA, a team long on belief but still pretty short on technical ability, their four games have largely been viewed as a positive experience for the federation and it’s fans.  There are a couple of interesting statistics that tell the story, the first being shots for and against.  The USA had the worst ratio of shots for against shots allowed of the 32 teams to take part, both for total shots and shots on target.  Then there is the by now rather infamous little tidbit that Michael Bradley ran more than any player in the group stages, and then again more than any player through the round of 16.  This is actually fascinating to me, as being one of the few Americans looked upon as having World Cup level technical ability, he was rather disappointing in that regard.

Of course, both he and Dempsey were forced to play in their less-than-ideal roles for the bulk of their time on the pitch. Similarly, Germany manager Jogi Loew also played Mesuit Ozil and whoever he had at center forward not named Miroslav Klose in their less than ideal roles for much of the time, but the overall level of technical ability on the German team mitigated that.  The USA seemed to almost double down on the “heart and hustle” for this World Cup, a rather familiar strategy to any following the USMNT since 1994.  In all honesty, it took them about as far as it was ever going to.

The USA’s breakout performer was probably Jermaine Jones, which is odd considering he’s a 32 year old nearing the end of a solid journeyman career in Europe — mostly the Bundesliga.  It’s also rather unfortunate, given that he is unlikely to figure much into the next cycle, aside from probably providing some welcome veteran savvy in the next few friendlies and maybe even next summer’s Gold Cup.  I expect to see Jones in MLS very soon.

Hey, what about the Sounders?

It’s pretty nice to be coming off consecutive defeats of the Timbers, the first a rather grueling 120 minute Open Cup match built more around resolve than anything else.  Then Sunday night, with that packed stadium and sunset — seriously, though, was that fucking amazing or what?!  The sunset, that is… as for the game, its pretty ridiculous how much things changed once Oba stepped on.  The aforemetioned insipid first half gave way to what could rightfully be called a dominating performance by the Sounders.  More than anything, it was pretty awesome to have Dempsey, Oba, Pappa, Neagle, Pineda and Ozzie finally together again.  They are a group of guys we should be able to win a LOT more games with.

Despite their domination, it stands out to me that both the Sounder goals came from pretty goldfish-brained plays by important Timber players.  On Demspey’s goal, the entire Timber defense and GK Donovan Ricketts appealed for the offsides that ought to have been there had Will Johnson — he of the infamous goldfish comment himself — had been paying one damn bit of attention to the proceedings.  On the second, Ricketts — who really kept his team in the game — made a rather histrionic overreaction to a potential right-footed shot from Pappa.  Sure, Pappa sneaked a right-footed shot past Ricketts for the stoppage-time clincher Wednesday night, but Ricketts’ reaction Sunday night was ridiculous.  Watching it live, in fact, I thought for a moment that Pappa had lost control of the ball as he pulled it back to his left foot before shooting into the gaping net.  Alas, its nice to know the Sounders can play half a game against the Timbers and still win somewhat comfortably.

Season awards update

The leader for the Brad Evans award for the Sounder Player of the Year who isn’t Osvaldo Alonso is Obafemi Martins.  Because really, after what we all saw Sunday night, who else am I going to give it to?

The leader for the Leo Gonzalez award for Sounder who isn’t necessarily player of the year but really deserves our recognition is Gonzalo Pineda.  I am working on a narrative that Pineda has saved Sigi’s ass — which is to say that he is the key addition in the turnaround of this team from the kind of profound disappointment of last season that can get even otherwise successful managers sacked.

Looking ahead

We have a friendly against Tottenham… I thought we decided not to do these any more?  I will be out of town and will likely not be watching, so I guess I’ll offer up another tangential rant next week.