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My View, by Paul Kennedy
July 29th, 2006 7:06PM

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By Paul Kennedy
Managing Editor, Soccer America

There's two ways to look at the impact of the dreary U.S. showing at the World Cup on Major League Soccer.

One view is that MLS is strong enough to withstand a big hit because of its huge investment in stadiums and its long-term contracts with commercial partners - an infusion of upward of $1 billion.

The other view is that the U.S. failure at the 2006 World Cup is a bigger debacle for MLS than the 32nd-out-of-32 finish at the 1998 World Cup.

Granted, the 2006 World Cup didn't produce quite the ''whine fest'' that took place eight years ago in France. Bruce Arena wasn't going to let his players get away with complaining - at least about him or each other. (The refereeing was another thing.)

But in 1998, MLS had great teams and great players to fall back upon. The 1998 season produced arguably the three greatest teams in MLS history: Arena's D.C. United team (CONCACAF Champions Cup and Inter-American Cup champion), the expansion Chicago Fire (MLS and U.S. Open champion) and Los Angeles Galaxy (24-8 in the regular season with a record 85 goals scored).

These teams were loaded with foreign stars. There was also Carlos Valderrama in Miami and rookie Stern John in Columbus. What foreign stars does MLS have now? Chivas USA's Mexicans? Youri Djorkaeff?

In 2006, what Americans does MLS have to fall back upon? With the exception of Clint Dempsey and to a lesser extent defender Jimmy Conrad, none of MLS's American stars came out of the World Cup with his reputation enhanced.

MLS's 2006 ''Embrace the Colors''' campaign with Landon Donovan and Pablo Mastroeni looks rather silly. Donovan was hardly the golden boy he was built up to be. Mastroeni embraced the colors: earning a red card in the Italy game - surely the most ill-timed red card in the history of American soccer.

The big money MLS paid to keep Eddie Johnson in the league was a big mistake, given his performance in Germany.

Freddy Adu came away looking bad without even stepping foot in Germany. The chances of Freddy ever switching allegiances are very slim, but even speculation that he'd play for his native Ghana was not the kind of news MLS needed.

The problem for MLS in its broadest form is that its main product is the American player - who came out of the World Cup looking bad.

Much was made of the USA's paltry four shots on goal - the fewest of any team in the tournament. You can talk all you want about where it might have finished if it had been drawn into another group, but the fact is, the USA was technically one of the weakest teams in the tournament in terms of its ability to weigh on its opponents and break them down with speed and strength and skill and imagination.

Probably the worst tag placed on the American player at 2006 World Cup was that he was boring.

SORE POINT. What can be done to improve the American player?

At his final press conference in Hamburg, Arena suggested that the best young Americans head to Europe. That didn't exactly go over well at MLS headquarters. Commissioner Don Garber castigated Arena for his comments, calling them ''ridiculous.''

Fact is, most of MLS's best Americans have already headed to Europe - which is why Arena's comments were such a sore point.

MLS's fundamental problem is that it has a trade deficit - it loses more good players abroad each year than it acquires. And if it can't keep its best players for the long haul, MLS can't enjoy the goodwill these players build up with its public.

Whether a player has to go to a big European league is a matter of debate. Ghana had players spread around in leagues in Israel, Denmark and Serbia & Montenegro and the Black Stars didn't exactly suffer because of the experience. The fact is, their soccer experiences are far tougher than Americans of the same age receive in their soccer environment.

Arena was in fine form at his final press conference in Hamburg. (Asked to compare how he felt after the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, he explained, ''Four years ago, I was completely burnt out after that whole thing. I was a zombie for about two weeks, Right now, I'm just an idiot.'') But the remark that stood out the most concerned his decision to take John O'Brien. For months, Arena talked about how he wouldn't make the same mistake he made in 2002 when he took players who were unfit. Well, what did he do? Take O'Brien, whom Arena wouldn't use when it counted. Why did Arena take O'Brien? Because he had ''no other options.''

Considering all the teams who pride themselves on their holding midfielders - one of the deepest positions in the league - it was a damning commentary on the state of MLS.

SNAKE BITTEN. The sighting of 1998 World Cup champion Youri Djorkaeff at the France-Brazil game produced a low moment of the World Cup for MLS. What was Djorkaeff doing in Frankfurt the same day as the struggling Red Bulls' game at New England?

The fact that Djorkaeff had a legitimate reason to be in France to visit his ailing mother, if not in Germany, wasn't the point. The Red Bulls came across as totally clueless - what's new? - by releasing a statement that they knew nothing of the Snake's intentions to go to Frankfurt.

ART OF STORY-TELLING. Almost until the very end - until the final 10 minutes of overtime in the Italy-France final, to be exact - I was willing to give lead announcer Dave O'Brien and the ABC/ESPN crew the benefit of the doubt for their coverage of the World Cup.

How could I tune them out after the ''One game changes everything'' promos, which rank up there with the best work the brilliant ESPN promotion machine has ever done? (My favorite ad, though, remains the one for ''SportsCenter,'' featuring Andriy Shevchenko and the proper terminology for ''football.'')

Did O'Brien ''let the game breathe,'' like he said he would in our profile of him in our World Cup preview issue? Hardly. The World Cup opener was hardly five minutes old when he dropped the name of Gregg Berhalter - as in the American player whose shot German Torsten Frings handled on the line in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal.

Much was written about ESPN's approach to speak to casual soccer fans or novices as opposed to the ''small but maniacal core'' (ESPN executive producer Jed Drake's description of the soccer audience to the Walls Street Journal). O'Brien's problem was he seemed to be trying too hard to speak to the maniacs and overwhelmed us with his soccer anecdotes. How many times did we have to know how Frenchman Franck Ribery got the scare on his face? It often seemed like O'Brien couldn't get off the air until he used all his cue cards.

But I could live with O'Brien and his story-telling, if he and his crew were getting the stories. They missed the biggest story of them all: the story behind Zinedine Zidane's vicious head-butt to the chest of Marco Materazzi and his subsequent red card.

The red card was the 12th in a career marked by occasional viciousness. Nothing was said of Zizou's violent streak until the post-game show when the ABC host crew brought up his red card for stomping on a Saudi opponent at the 1998 World Cup. But the more infamous assault was of Hamburg's Jochen Kientz in 2000 - another Zidane head butt that landed him a five-game suspension in the Champions League.

TRANSPARENCY LACKING. Soccer fanatics often wonder why the American media don't take soccer seriously.

They should understand that FIFA doesn't take the media seriously when the two protagonists in arguably the most dramatic confrontation in the history of the World Cup can escape without talking after the final. That Zidane didn't talk was no surprise. He hadn't been talking for weeks. Materazzi got away with saying, ''Ciao, ciao, ragazzi,''

''Silenzio stampa'' - Italian for ''silence press'' or a press boycott - is a regular feature of the World Cup as players face off against the media. Their reluctance to talk is understandable. In many countries, a hard-core tabloid element weighs on players and their families.

But soccer's lack of transparency is a major issue.

REFEREEING QUESTION. Each night, for much of my World Cup month, was spent in the company of the non-converted, watching our sons' four weeks of Little League all-star baseball practices. The parents all watched or claimed to watch the World Cup and they all had same question: ''Why was the refereeing so bad?''

You can debate whether the refereeing at the World Cup was any worse than at, say, the Super Bowl - Seahawks fans will surely tell you it wasn't - but the fact is, the number of incidents at the World Cup were glaring.

What separates soccer from other sports is that the proportion of questionable calls to scores, or scoring opportunities, is so much higher in soccer. What are one or two bad calls in a football game with several dozen plays in the red zone? Or a couple of bad calls in a basketball game with dozens of baskets?

The Italy-France final was a perfect example of soccer's problem with two goals, eight shots on goal, at least three controversial calls: the Florent Malouda penalty that might not have been, the Malouda penalty that wasn't called, the offside call on Luca Toni's goal for Italy.

Never before could I recall so many games decided by questionable calls (or non-calls). There were only nine goals in regulation of the final seven knockout games, so these calls stood out.

(This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)



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