By Steve Lichtenstein
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Soccer fever will grip the planet this week as the 2014 World Cup kicks off in Brazil.
I already have a headache.
Before you pounce on me with derivations of “ugly American,” hear me out.
I know full well why this 32-team tournament has such a large global following, including a very healthy contingent of soccer nuts in this melting pot called the United States.
For many countries, this is the most major team sport with which they grew up. Baseball may hail its World Series, but no one on either side of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans – other than Japan — plays it to such a serious degree. Football is even more a purely American phenomenon.
Only basketball has been able to make some inroads into the world sports culture, thanks to the powerful NBA marketing machine. But it’s still got a long way to go before it can even consider challenging soccer for sports supremacy in foreign countries.
Here in the U.S., however, soccer has never been able to make the leap in terms of making the impact that was projected following its hosting of the 1994 World Cup.
Sure, zillions of kids play it at various youth levels. Many play it all year around.
Then they go home and watch the NFL on TV.
There’s no question that a strong run by the U.S. National Team would be a ratings bonanza, but that seems as unlikely as the Jets winning a Super Bowl in my lifetime.
The U.S. isn’t even favored to advance beyond its three-game round robin in a difficult group. Our advantages in population and wealth haven’t helped in the past against Ghana, the thorn in the Americans’ side in the prior two tournaments and their opponent in Monday’s opener.
There’s a simple explanation for this: Our best athletes don’t play soccer.
Like every sport played at the highest echelons, it takes years of dedicated practice to master the skills and other technical aspects of soccer. But can you imagine how imposing Calvin “Megatron” Johnson would be on crosses into the penalty area if he chose a soccer path over football? Or having someone like Russell Westbrook, who is so quick it looks like he can teleport himself on NBA courts, running loose in the midfield?
Then there’s LeBron James, the Heat star who already owns a piece of Liverpool in the English Premier League and has been reported to have been involved with investing in a potential MLS franchise in Miami. His athletic ability would seem well-suited for goalkeeping, with his 6-foot 8 frame, soft hands and outrageous sky-walking basically forcing opponents to be perfect with their shots.
In fact, the relative soccer talent deficit is so dire here that about a quarter of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster is comprised of players who were born and grew up outside this country. I expect Ted Cruz to weigh in on this any day now on the Senate floor (though in seriousness those players were the product of at least one American parent — there isn’t any Andray Blatche situations).
It seems counter intuitive that a country that invests all the resources it does to develop soccer players from the youth levels through the national team hasn’t yet found its version of James. The sport’s participation rates have grown for the last 20 years and a healthy professional league has been formed, yet the U.S. lost to freaking Honduras and Costa Rica, which have a combined population equivalent to that of Pennsylvania, in the World Cup qualifying round.
So what is it then? I’ve heard excuses such as the excessive cost of training, which in turn excludes a large segment of athletes who can’t afford it.
But the truth is that many world-class soccer players hone and expand their skills the same way as those who play basketball — through pickup games in parks. You don’t need a rink or lots of equipment. Like basketball, if you have a ball and a goal, you can play soccer.
The soccer program in our suburban New Jersey town dwarfs every other youth sport, yet the kids are much more likely to congregate on the basketball courts (or, for that matter, the skate park) in our community park than on an open pitch to play soccer.
No, what’s holding us back is the realities of American television.
There’s a lot of bad TV programming out there, but watching soccer can be painful. It’s not just the lack of scoring (even the highest-caliber teams in the World Cup have combined for an average of about 2.3 goals per game in each of the last two tournaments), it’s the dearth of scoring chances.
What should we expect when the most common attack is four guys trying to infiltrate an array of eight packed tightly in the penalty area? It’s as if every team is coached by John Tortorella.
I mean, why should I get excited about watching Spain — the defending champions — play keep-away for 90 minutes?
Unfortunately, that’s the way the game is played and there’s nothing this country can — or should — do about it.
But it’s also why more American kids dream of being like Mike (Jordan) than Landon (Donovan — who didn’t survive Klinsmann’s final cut for this Cup despite his status as the best American player ever).
They can relate to the success of watching an athlete score a basket or touchdown. That gives them the impetus to go out and imitate those moves.
They rarely get that chance when soccer is on. With Donovan now a memory, the current goal-scoring leader for active U.S National Team players is Clint Dempsey — with 37 in 105 appearances. At that proportional pace, he’ll be good for one goal in this Group stage.
Sure, I’m hoping Dempsey and the rest of the gang pull off a few upsets and advance to the Round of 16. I’ll probably even watch when the U.S. plays. Intermittently, of course, as there’s only so much inactivity I can take on my screen before I start to feel woozy.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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