I see we're being told that 2014 was a great year for soccer etc, etc, etc. Familiar news, no? Maybe there's always a tendency to look back and paint a rosy-tinted view of the past ... and why not? It seems a pretty spontaneous, natural, human thing to do, a weakness perhaps, but an understandable and an enjoyable one.
Something that can be innocently enjoyed with a knowing wink. But those wonderful PR and marketing and sponsor people get in the way here. The sense of humor necessary for that knowing wink, the wink that signifies that a sane sense of values is at work -- that wink is quite lacking when the PR fraternity join in.
We have an event that has just happened -- the stories come up dated January 1 2015, but it is a tale that began back in 2014, a tale that we always knew was going to end this way. Frank Lampard’s arrival at what is, supposedly, his new club, New York City, will be delayed. His deal with Manchester City will be extended until the end of the English season. Sometime in May, then, maybe three months into the MLS season.
No point in wasting words on that. This is exactly the way that David Beckham, more than once, treated the Los Angeles Galaxy, shoving them into second place as loan agreements were arranged. Whatever, it manifestly does nothing for the image of MLS.
So, right on key, here comes the official MLS view of the situation. The PR view. It comes from Mark Abbott, the deputy commissioner, who says everything is fine. It’s almost as though, for MLS and NY City, this is the best thing that could happen: “Frank Lampard’s performance at Manchester City reaffirms that he is one of the world’s elite midfielders and we look forward to him joining NYCFC during the 2015 season.”
By the Mark Abbott method, then, the longer Lampard stays with ManCity, proving his pedigree, the better it is for MLS. Abbott’s statement does not come with a knowing wink attached. We’re supposed to take it seriously. That’s what PR and marketing values can do for you, maneuvering a genuine and knowledgeable man into making fatuous statements.
So, if I were making a new year resolution, I think it would be to caution all and sundry that they must adopt a totally skeptical attitude to all official soccer announcements. We have not yet reached the stage that was once announced as a journalistic rule-of-thumb -- “Don’t believe anything until it’s been officially denied” -- but we’re getting there.
We’ve got the FIFA player of the year award coming up shortly. It belongs, surely, to Cristiano Ronaldo. But one of the finalists is German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. The very man who should have been red-carded in the World Cup final. Here’s hoping that common sense prevails and that the award honors the soccer skills of Ronaldo rather than the handball mastery of Neuer.
As for the 2014 World Cup itself -- well, there was plenty that was enjoyable, more than enough, I think, to crowd out the memory of Brazil’s dismal performance. Lucky to beat Croatia in its opening game, even luckier to avoid defeat against Chile, never playing coherent soccer, the Brazilian disorder became disaster against the Germans, and turned sourly to disgrace in an abject performance in the third-place game.
But how about Costa Rica? Coming to within one shootout goal of a place in the semifinals -- after victories against Italy and Uruguay -- all the while playing attractive soccer. A superb achievement that puts all the hullabaloo about the U.S. performance where it belongs -- in the PR column, expertly orchestrated by Jurgen Klinsmann himself.
It’s too early to tell whether the sudden upturn in goalscoring at the World Cup is anything other than a passing spasm. One hopes not, but it has never been clear that club soccer (i.e. the vast bulk of the sport) takes any leads from the World Cup.
Chile, I thought, played the best soccer in Brazil, and that was encouraging because it seemed to me that, physically, Chile was one of the smallest, if not the smallest, team in the World Cup. Anything that indicates movement away from the trend to bigger players and a more physical game is fine with me.
There was a pleasant surprise too in the refereeing, because the officials refused to be a party to the English anti-diving witch-hunt. The result was a tournament in which diving calls were not invented by the refs -- and therefore without the rancor that such fictitious calls encourage.
I can’t say that I found Germany particularly rewarding to watch. I do feel that the sport has a lot more to offer than being well-organized and almost mechanically efficient. But the Germans deserved their win for the consistently high level of their play ... and they did win a rather disappointing final (and how many of those have we had lately?) with a wonderful goal from Mario Goetze. A goal that might well have claimed the goal-of-the-tournament award, but for Colombian James Rodriguez’s breath-taking volley against Uruguay.
Back home, there’s not much positive to be said of U.S. Soccer progress. PR gets in the way again. Hacking a way through the Klinsmann self-promotion thicket, what do we find? What has the man done? Not much. The performance in the World Cup was monstrously over-rated. Mostly by Klinsmann, who never ceased to stress what a tough group the U.S. was in, the “worst of the worst” he moaned (oh? Worse than Costa Rica’s trio of opponents -- England, Italy, Uruguay?), and how “nobody thought we could qualify from that group,” which also wasn’t true.
But Klinsmann did give us some light relief when he clashed with MLS boss Don Garber over the best way to produce top-level young American players. Klinsmann’s wish to strip MLS of all its promising young Americans and send them to Europe found Garber foaming at the mouth -- and who can blame him?
As it happens, Klinsmann is right when he says that the playing level in MLS is not as good as the top leagues in Europe -- a truth that is unpalatable to Garber and one that he dare not publicly admit. But whether any of those European leagues are seeking American players is another matter ... unless Klinsmann has devised some method of forcing European clubs to sign young Americans. And to play them. The latest news on that front is far from encouraging. Only three Americans with starting jobs in the EPL, and two of those are goalkeepers.
As Garber railed on, Klinsmann backed off, he “didn’t mean” to denigrate MLS etc. Once again, the words have the ring of a PR cover-up.
Garber quieted down, and instead turned to the Canadians and assured them, in his state of the league address, that “I don’t think our job will be done until Canada qualifies for the World Cup.” An extraordinary statement. I wonder what Costa Rica or El Salvador or Honduras or any Concacaf country struggling for a World Cup berth might have to say about that?
But if soccer in this country is looking like a Garber vs. Klinsmann struggle, I’d say Garber comes out ahead. After all, his league is moving ahead, it is very much in the expansion business, it has built plenty of new soccer stadiums. But Klinsmann’s national team looks as it always has -- a team without anything resembling a style of play. While his plans for youth development are a shambles, also an activity without any clearly defined aim.
As it happens, despite Klinsmann and his favoring of all sorts of gurus and computer programs as the means to producing better players, I still feel that the youth scene is the most promising area for American soccer. Because we have so much talent -- and so much of it is not currently being recognized.
The Latino talent. There is no real evidence that it will be acknowledged by Klinsmann. But in the long run, Klinsmann is irrelevant in the same way that college soccer -- also a largely Latino-free activity -- is irrelevant. After watching this year’s Division I college final, and viewing youth games from the Disney Soccer Showcase -- I’m in no doubt that the Latino talent is seriously needed.
I’m also totally confident that the Latino talent will make itself felt, sooner rather than later. And, despite the PR gobbledygook and the marketing hogwash, that gives the future a wonderfully encouraging aura.