Monday, August 20, 2007

FBO: 'Is Soccer Ever Going to Hit?'


A decade or so ago, I attended the first-ever MLS game at New Jersey's Meadowlands, where the New York/New Jersey MetroStars -- the worst named team in the history of professional athletics -- hosted the New England Revolution, with that World Cup guy who looked like the lead singer of the Spin Doctors. It was a full crowd, and many Central and South Americans standing atop the backs of seats and jumping in mass with songs and banners. Once the game started, everyone sat to watch in relative silence. American soccer was back! The game that followed, however, was a dreary, sloppy effort, with New England 'winning' 0-1 in the 92nd minute by an own goal by a MetroStar defender. We filed out in numbed shock. American soccer would have to wait.

Attendance this season for the New York Red Bulls -- wearing their sponsor on their jerseys, but wisely dropping the 'New Jersey' from their name -- is averaging 11,000 in massive Giants Stadium. Some teams, like the Columbus Crew (good name, good logo), have created 'soccer-sized stadiums,' with more intimate seats in realistically sized stadiums (say maximum capacity 25,000 rather than 90,000). They seem to understand that soccer will take a while to ever compete with the NBA, NFL or MLB -- and may never compete.

As a representative to the Failed Bands of Oklahoma,
I attended the much-heralded Red Bulls/LA Galaxy game Saturday night
, and for once the Red Bulls needed the seats. Present were 66,000 fans and at least 8000 'Beckham' jerseys on. Beforehand, tailgaters held up 'Arsenal' banners or 'Germany' or 'England' national team banners or wore Brazil soccer jerseys. Three goals lit up the back of the nets in the first ten minutes. The age-old criticism that Americans can't deal with defense-minded sport seem answered. In the end, the home team won huge cheers for a game-winning goal in the 88th minute, 5-4. Beckham said afterward, 'I haven't played in a game like this since I was eight years old.' ESPN said it was the best MLS game in its history.

It was exciting. Too bad no one saw it.

Some observations:

* The bulk of European criticism of Beckham is 'soft play' in the midfield. He lines up for kicks, but does less to contest balls. He certainly wasn't very active on Saturday night, outside goal-assisting crosses and near goal-assisting passes. But it may be because of his injury.
* Merch stands were doing brisk business of $90 -- yes $90 -- Beckham jerseys, yet his corners and free kicks were met with a chorus of boos.
* The $4 hot dog at Giants' Stadium is awful. You have to wait a long time to get fries.
* Why in the world wasn't this game on TV? On every set in the USA? Instead of Little League, NFL pre-season, baseball and boring tennis and golf?
* The 'wave' never died, it just moved to Jersey. Fans had that thing rolling around the stadium most of the game.

Meanwhile, willMLS's multi-million dollar gamble that Beckham's star power -- and he looks a little like a cross of Brett Favre and Sting -- can bring the masses to soccer. His lingering ankle injury has unfortunately kept him from playing in the all-important window of summer when baseball's daily dose didn't matter much and football hadn't started. That's now over. But play of his team and opponents seem to be rising to the occasion when he steps onto the field. When he visited the NY Yankee lockerroom in Toronto, one Yankee said 'He just has this aura about him.' Maybe it can work?

But you have to wonder about the MLS. Last year, during the World Cup, the MLS ran a mere four ads during the multi-week event, missing the chance for exposure when people cared about the sport. This year, the MLS should do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get every Beckham game on TV across America for the rest of the season.

If there's another game like the 5-4 one Saturday night, then America might finally have the soccer it's been waiting for.

A Beckham corner:

FBO Admin
Mobile/Semi-Permanent HQ -- Brooklyn, NY

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