American football has a serious credibility problem.
I’m talking about American men’s football.
Against the backdrop of the Women’s World Cup, where US women are the nation’s darlings and tournament favorites, the US men’s national team sank to a new low when they fell 3-0 against Venezuela in their last voting game before Gold Cup – Venezuela, a team that have never competed in the World Cup but at times in the first half looked like they were playing with the US.
Any number of factors can explain performance:
– The opening goal was a coincidence;
– US players are still building their fitness for the Gold Cup.
– The two best players Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams and long-time captain Michael Bradley did not play.
Even so, the US performance in Cincinnati looked poor. Choose your adjective …
– Predictable given the events against Jamaica four days ago.
– Ridiculous at times (I think Jordan Morris stands in the way of his buddy Cristian Roldan’s attempt to score an open goal).
This was not a friendly broadcast late at night on ESPN2 or FS1, but a game broadcast on the big Fox – the only US men’s game of the summer on the network – with the lead of the three women’s games played earlier in the day in France on Fox and FS1. It should have attracted the biggest television audience of the year for a men’s game on English language television.
But late in the first half, after La Vinotinto scored his third goal, commentator Stu Holden told the crowd: “I don’t blame you for not watching.”
It happened at Fox, which has invested more money in media rights for football properties that include US leagues or teams – MLS, US Soccer alone and through FIFA – and its leading men’s football commentator said the product was not worth watching .
It would be a bit like going to an Apple Store and looking for the latest Apple product and the store manager would come up to you and say, “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t buy it.” The product would not survive with this assessment. Choose one type of product and business related to it and it won’t survive.
You have to respect US coach Gregg Berhalter. Immediately after the game in Jamaica – a 1-0 defeat in which the US scored a shot – he guaranteed that there would be worse performances than at Audi Field. Nobody would have predicted that the next bad performance would come so soon and be so bad.
The danger is that Berhalter’s players will stop buying into his system, and then what? They certainly looked uncomfortable against Venezuela. But Berhalter only works with the players who are available to him. Talk of leaving Josh Sargent off the Gold Cup roster overshadowed how thin the US team is.
On Sunday, Berhalter started four Europe-based players – all players who were on teams that were relegated (Tim Ream) or ended just above the relegation zone (Tyler Boyd, Weston McKennie and Matt Miazga, albeit all bright spots). The backbone of the US line-up consisted of Zack Steffen in goal, Wil Trapp in central midfield and Gyasi Zardes in center forward, all the players Berhalter had with the Columbus Crew, who were 1-8-1 in the last 10 games.
But I am not blaming Berhalter or his players. American men’s football is the product of a sport that is still fundamentally flawed.
The story of the game is a sport that has been pulled up by its own boot straps at every turn. For a quarter of a century, the men’s national team had reached before it was no longer possible. American professional football failed or failed nearly four times, but MLS, pronounced dead in 2001, persisted thanks to the dedication of some owners and will soon hit 30 teams.
Sunil Gulati and Don Garber are regularly defamed on social media, but what they’ve achieved over the past 35 years for Gulati and 20 years for Garber is nothing short of an American sports miracle. That doesn’t mean that football has overcome its fundamental problems.
If the American football boom had happened in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, it could have grown for the football fan without competition from the European or Mexican leagues as there was no television or internet to speak of. It could have invested in prime football pitch real estate before it was all taken away or prohibitively expensive. It hasn’t and it has created huge barriers. Geography and weather create challenges that no major soccer nation except Brazil has to grapple with, and Brazilian soccer has existed as a regional sport for years.
Probably the most promising event in the last year or two is how young players in MLS clubs penetrate the top teams or are lured into top European teams. The US U-20s in Poland had players in the books for the champions of the Dutch, French, German and Spanish leagues. The U-20s represent the post-Bradenton generation – the first generation of players to go through residential and / or educational programs that MLS clubs have launched in recent years. The investment clubs make tens of millions of dollars each year in coaching, programming, education, housing and facilities.
In general, American football struggles because it lacks access to the free (i.e., taxpayer-funded) and convenient facilities available to those who play basketball and soccer, and because its pay-to-play system comes to an end High school football was developed and then sold as a “better way” to college.
The U20 World Cup was a valuable lesson. As deep as Tab Ramos’ pool of players was, other nations are not sitting still either. Ecuador, which had never reached the quarter-finals before this year, did at least as well, if not better, than the US in every position. (The biggest statement US football could have made this “rebuilding” year was to send Tyler Adams and Sargent to Poland – or to try to get released and send them.)
Despite all of the investments made by US soccer and MLS, the men’s national team can still hold its own in the face of these fundamental issues. At the very least, there must be an open discussion about these challenges and possible solutions.
I’ve always been skeptical of relegation and whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, but there has to be some serious discussion at least.
Gregg Berhalter is right that the Cincinnati debacle is the time to keep calm, but that’s only good if there is serious research into what is going on.