New kicks for U.S. soccer

New kicks for U.S. soccer

While watching World Cup matches over the past couple of weeks, especially games involving the U.S. team, I kept drifting off to a scene from Little Big Man—the one in which the 120-year-old narrator explains the concept of “counting coup.”

Some of the Plains tribes of Native Americans once practiced this quaint, non-lethal combat strategy, which involved bravely riding in among opponents and bonking them over the head with coup sticks. The object, apparently, was to humiliate enemies. Among coup-counting tribes, bonkees were dutifully embarrassed.

The narrator, a white man raised by a Cheyenne band, has never quite understood the allure of this fighting style. Neither has the unimpressed U.S. Cavalry (a fact that necessitates a shift in tactics by the coup-counters).

Anyway, you can see why the Coupe du Monde might lead to thoughts of coup-counting. In both games, style seems to rate as high as substance, and your average Americans (to say nothing of us below-average Americans) don’t quite get either one.

This, I submit to you, is why it will be a long time before we can aspire to much more than our World Cup team’s recent torment at the hands of countries we could beat by a zillion points in basketball or Real Football.

Now, before you start spewing out e-mails, let me emphatically affirm that this is not another of those anti-soccer rants you may have been reading. It’s just that, to too many Americans, too much of soccer seems as incomprehensible as waging combat with a coup stick. As with so many other foreign masterworks, the game translates imperfectly, hindering a lot of us from fully grasping its subtleties.

For example, in the nations where it is played most fervently, soccer is called “the beautiful game.” Fans who have grown up with the sport have a special appreciation of the artistry and creativity behind a deft pass that surprises the defense or a bending shot that almost flies into the net.

They applaud a well-mounted attack—even if it ends in an errant shot—as if that effort were a goal in itself. They seem to savor such plays long afterward, even if their team loses.

To Americans raised in a singularly goal-oriented culture, beauty is not truth. Scoring goals is truth. A miss is just a miss, and a sigh is still a sigh.

You can imagine how NFL fans react when their team fails to capitalize on a scoring opportunity, and there’s nothing beautiful about it. You aren’t likely to overhear them fondly recounting the long bombs they almost—almost!—completed for touchdowns. Footballers who fail at kicking the ball through the uprights are regarded as chokers and bums, not artists.

This perception doesn’t really apply to millions of Americans who already have a keen appreciation of soccer. Instead, the sport’s governing body should be concerned about the scores of millions of potential soccer fans in this country.

This was supposed to be a breakthrough year for U.S. soccer. In the run-up to the Cup, our veteran national team had not only competed well; they had even humbled champion Brazil. With any luck, ran the optimistic thinking, the improved Americans might advance to the second round and win a significant base of new fans and sponsors here at home.

Instead, it may now take years for soccer to regain the ground it lost here. Beset by an unfavorable draw and some downright weird coaching decisions, the discombobulated U.S. team scored just one meaningless goal in three losses.

Overall TV ratings of Cup games were down from 1994. And what about the generation of American kids raised on youth soccer? Surveys show that the majority of them have failed to follow through with the sport; by the time they reach high school, they’re more likely to be football fans.

In fact, the only encouraging note may be the disappointment that greeted the U.S. team’s performance in France. At least Americans cared enough to feel embarrassed about losing. But without a turnaround on the field, the prevailing mood may evolve into apathy.

So let me propose a modest corrective: affirmative action for U.S. soccer—not for the players, but for the fans.

In terms of support and prestige, our team does not play on a level field with the world. When was the last time you watched a few minutes of a DC United game? (’Fess up, now: how many thought DC United was a logo on an airline boarding pass?) We need an equalizer until our fans’ appreciation of soccer catches up to that of the Europeans and South Americans.

So, I say to Mr. Rothenburg and this country’s other soccer lords, let’s make the Beautiful Game even beautifuller to American beholders. Diddle with the rules a bit to give fans in this country more of a proprietary feeling about the sport.

For one, we Americans need to see more scoring; if a tie is like kissing your sister, a nil-nil match is like kissing your dog.

Make the nets two feet wider and a foot taller. Instead of simply having referees wave yellow cards, impose time penalties and permit power plays, as in hockey. And, critically important, insert enough stoppages to permit more instant replays, so TV audiences can develop a better appreciation for the players’ artistry (and have time to go to the bathroom and grab a beer).

Now I ask you: What could be more American than insisting on playing by our own rules? Besides, the rest of the world adopted their own rules for basketball—a game we invented.

And besides that, this kind of tinkering worked for Canadian football and arena football. It could succeed in futbol too, building a fan following in ways that traditional approaches have not. Now that would be a serious coup.

Slick pickings

Our very own NHL franchise became an NHL team, sort of, when they sat down and chose up sides last weekend.

As the new kids on the ice, the Predators were allowed to scarf up one unprotected player from each of the existing NHL teams. Then, on Saturday, they participated in the league’s regular draft.

Not that the June 1998 Predators will necessarily bear much resemblance to the squad that skates into the Nashville Arena come October. Goalie Mike Richter and some of the other marquee veterans tabbed in the expansion draft will probably never play for Nashville but will bring favorable draft picks to the club when they sign with other teams as free agents. Most of Saturday’s draftees, meanwhile, are minor-league-bound youngsters who won’t show up here for two or three years, if at all.

Nevertheless, four months before their first game, the Predators claimed their first major victory on Saturday.

Instead of contenting himself with the third overall selection, general manager David Poile wangled a trade with San Jose that enabled the Predators to move up one spot in the draft—and into a whole new class.

According to a consensus of scouts, this year’s draft included only two young players who stand head and shoulders above the others. From their new spot in line, the Predators snatched up one of them: David Legwand, a 17-year-old scorer who has the potential to become a franchise player.

The Predators, as you’d expect in an expansion team, may have as challenging a first winter as the Pilgrims. But they’ve already shown some nifty moves. And they’ve given Nashville fans a strong indicator that the building of their team is going to be as sure footed as their community relations.


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