Monday, July 14, 2014

World Cup Review


Over the past month, soccer fans put aside their jobs and families and spent nearly every day glued to the television set to watch 64 soccer games. The tournament was fantastic even though the knockout stages were a bit disappointing, with new stars emerging and old ones taking their final bow. Germany became the first European nation to win the World Cup in the Americas, while the US performance coupled with some great coverage by ESPN brought soccer to a new audience in America.

I have a few stats to pass along, and a brief essay on the future of the game in the United States.

Confederation Records

Despite a rather ignominious ending for Brazil and a final defeat for Argentina, the six South American sides combined for the best record among the five confederations. This excludes matches between teams in the same confederation, while matches that went to penalty kicks are considered draws. Yes, Costa Rica and the Netherlands officially have no losses in the tournament record, along with Germany. The standings are in W-L-D format.

South America (CONMEBOL)  15- 6-3
Europe        (UEFA)      20-10-11
North America (CONCACAF)   5- 6-5
Africa        (CAF)        3-11-3
Asia          (AFC)        0- 9-3

In 2010, South American squads went 12-6-6 to take the overall best record despite not winning anything meaningful then either. Asian clubs regressed after a 4-6-7 record in South Africa.

Goals

There were 171 goals scored (2.67 per game), with 126 of those coming during the run of play, nearly 2 per contest.

There were 12 penalty goals (with one miss by France's Benzema against the Swiss) and 5 own goals, including the first score in the tournament.

Only 3 goals were scored directly from free kicks, such as the scorcher from David Luiz against Colombia, while another 7 were scored indirectly from a free kick, with the wonderful strike from Claudio Marchisio against England one of the highlights. A further 18 goals came from corner kicks, so only 28 total from set pieces.

Of the 126 scored during the run of play, 14 came from shots outside the box (James Rodriguez against Uruguay the most notable), 15 from shots in the crease (such as Clint Dempsey's go-ahead goal against Portugal), 16 from headers (Silvestre Varela's last second tying marker in the same game) and 12 from rebounds (such as Thomas Müller's game-winner over the USA). The other 69 goals came from shots inside the box, including the final one from Mario Götze.

Obviously you can categorize these differently as you wish, for example that Müller goal came off a corner and was a shot outside the box, but Howard had saved the first shot so it was no longer a set piece, and the rebound trumps the shot outside the box.

The Future of Soccer in America

I watched the final at a bar yesterday and it was great to see it full of fans new to the game. Some pundits have written that American soccer can use the tournament to grow itself beyond its current status, becoming a true major league sport. I am not so sure. The World Cup is simply the best sporting event out there, with the best players from all over the world competing for a full month. The Euro might have more quality with no weaklings invited, but nothing captures the imagination like a relative minnow beating a world power, such as Costa Rica did against both Uruguay and Italy. This is simply not replicable in domestic competition.

I watched some of the Portland-Seattle tilt on Sunday night and it was mildly entertaining, but without the narrative that will attract casual fans. Furthermore, the best soccer players in the world are playing in Europe for the most part. Sports fans in North America get the best players in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball and are likely to expect the best in soccer too. Having a few USMNT players in the league helps but we really want to see big names, and not those on the downside of their careers.

Another problem is the existing soccer snobs, referred to as snoccers by Dan Patrick, who seem to want to keep new fans out. This is how niche culture protects itself, by pretending it is more than it is. Art, music, film - all have snobby fans that denigrate those who prefer more mainstream pursuits, while at the same time desperately wishing they could be mainstream themselves. We all want validation. If you enjoy soccer and want it to succeed, invite fans of all kinds in and stop thinking you are special because you discovered the game three years ago. Oh, and if you are the worst kind of fan who refuses to use the word soccer in America, remember the word originated in England as a short form for Association Football. Only when it became popular stateside did the English decide to stop using it. American football is the dominant sport here, so quit being a pretentious douche and use soccer without smirking.

I would love for soccer to become more popular here but it is going to take a lot of work from the league. The season is similar to that of baseball, and with MLB games taking over 3 hours now, perhaps a direct attack on America's pastime could increase fan interest, along with aggressive expansion focusing on keeping the game American. We have a new team joining the MLS next season, New York City FC, playing out of Yankee Stadium. As Keith Olbermann said, let's not copy the Europeans, instead, give the teams real nicknames. "Why not the New York Yankees here too?" Olbermann asked. Last night's game was between the Sounders and Timbers, two great monikers that describe the Pacific Northwest location of the clubs. Let's have all MLS teams with nicknames and stop trying to emulate Europe.

The next big tournament is the 2015 Copa America (June 11-July 4 in Chile) followed immediately by the 2015 Gold Cup (July 7-26). I'd like to see the US invited to the Copa America in place of Jamaica as it would increase the profile of the team here and give them top sides to play against. Despite the good showing in the World Cup, CONCACAF teams in general aren't that strong. The USMNT could gain invaluable experience by scheduling more friendlies against top competition, but there is nothing like a world-class tournament to improve. if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and once every four years is just not enough meaningful games. Whatever happens though, it will be interesting to follow along as soccer strives to gain widespread acceptance in the United States.

Best,

Sean

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