Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


ROGERS FORCES THE MEDIA’S HAND … A BIT

Former U.S. international Robbie Rogers, who in February revealed that he is gay, made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, coming on as a substitute in the 77th minute of  L.A.’s 4-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders at the Home Depot Center.

The crowd of 24,811 greeted Rogers, who grew up in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, with polite applause, and he had five touches in an uneventful cameo.

The 26-year-old outside midfielder earlier played in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew and made 18 appearances for the national team.  Two years ago he headed to England, where he played in the second tier for Leeds United and eventually, on loan, in the third tier for Stevenage.  Injuries and the emotional strain of hiding his sexual orientation took their toll, and Rogers parted ways with Leeds last winter.  Although in announcing his homosexuality Rogers said he would take a break from soccer, he was training with the Galaxy two months later.  Two days before the appearance against Seattle, L.A. midfielder-forward Mike Magee was traded to the Chicago Fire, which held Rogers’ MLS rights, for Rogers.  [May 26]

Comment:  Rogers’ return to soccer was truly an historic occasion–an important step in America’s evolution in its view of gays and lesbians.  But that’s for the social scientists.  From a soccer standpoint, it was very revealing.  And no, not because diehard Galaxy fans seemed oblivious of their new midfielder’s sexual orientation.  (Their concern lay with the loss of the popular Magee, the team’s leading scorer.  For the record, Magee wanted a move to his hometown of Chicago for personal reasons.)

The Rogers story revealed a U.S. news media that still has trouble admitting that MLS, the league whose teams average more fans per game than the NBA and NHL, is major league in more than name alone.  Weeks ago, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines with the revelation that he is gay.  However, at age 34, with his season over and his contract with the Golden State Warriors expiring, it is uncertain whether Collins will ever step onto an NBA court again.  Now, along comes Rogers, who has bravely come out of the closet knowing full well that he will spend the next five months in the glare of a spotlight of his own making, thus forcing the media to write, as the cliche goes, the first draft of history.

On one end, there was the Los Angeles Times, whose headline the next day read, “Rogers’ small step onto field is huge.  In Galaxy debut, he is first openly gay male team player in U.S. major pro sports.”

On the other end, there was the New York Times.  Sportswriter John Branch, noting that “you can’t choose your heroes,” followed that with, “Such is the case for the movement of gays in sports–more specifically openly gay men in major North American team sports.”  Four paragraphs later:  “On Sunday night, the soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to play a major (sort of) North American team sport.”  Not long after, Branch’s New York Times colleague, Billy Witz, gave MLS a promotion of sorts, calling Rogers the “first … gay man to participate in a prominent North American professional league.”

So is Major League Soccer major league?  “Sort of” major?  Merely “prominent”?  In terms of TV ratings and average player salaries, it’s major league soccer because it is, by far, bigger than the country’s minor soccer leagues.  In terms of gleaming new stadiums, growing ranks of imported stars, plus growth potential based on grassroots participation numbers that make ice hockey’s look laughable, MLS is not only the country’s fifth major sport but its fourth, one rung on the ladder above the NHL.

For now, MLS is what the media tells the public it is.  If it is to gain recognition as a bona fide, honest-to-god major league, it will continue to come grudgingly.  As  the Los Angeles Daily News put it in a preview of the Galaxy’s next game, at New England,  “The Galaxy now play in a ‘major U.S. professional sport,’ according to the latest stories about the addition of Robbie Rogers.  So be it.”



ALAS, NO GOLD, SILVER OR BRONZE FOR U.S. THIS SUMMER

The United States surrendered a goal by Jaime Alas four minutes into added-on time, giving El Salvador a 3-3 tie in Nashville that knocked the Americans out of contention for the 2012 London Olympics.  The Salvadorans finished atop their first-round group and advanced along with Canada to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in Kansas City, where they will face Mexico and Honduras with two berths in London on the line.  The U.S., at 1-1-1, landed in third place.

After taking a lead on a goal by Terrence Boyd in the first minute, the U.S. was sent reeling by goals by El Salvador’s Lester Blanco and Andres Flores in the 35th and 37th minutes.  Boyd scored an equalizer in the 65th minute and Joe Corona, whose mother is Salvadoran, put the U.S. ahead, 3-2, three minutes later with a header off a cross by captain Freddy Adu, who had also set up Boyd’s second strike.

The Americans, however, couldn’t hold off the relentless Salvadorans.  On a quick counterattack, Alas’ seemingly harmless 25-yard shot squeezed under U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who had replaced the injured Bill Hamid (ankle) in the 39th minute.  [March 26]

Comment:   A disturbing setback, coming as it does on the heels of three other American stumbles in regional or world championship competition over the past 12 months.   A year ago, the U.S. National Under-20 Team gives up a second-half goal against the run of play and is eliminated by host Guatemala, 2-1, in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the FIFA World Youth Championship.  In June, the U.S. National Team scores twice early, only to give up four unanswered goals to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl.  The following month, the U.S. National Women’s Team is unable to protect a one-goal lead in regulation and again late in overtime and loses to underdog Japan on penalty kicks in the FIFA Women’s World Cup title match in Germany.  And now this.

It’s no time for Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws and their brethren to panic, of course.  The U.S. women, despite their confounding defeat at the hands of Japan last summer, are still No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings.  And with CONCACAF’s 3 1/2 berths up for grabs, the U.S. men head into 2014 World Cup qualifying this summer with perhaps the two most accomplished attacking players in their history, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, still in their prime.  For the U.S. men, however, it would have to be concluded that, given the U-23s’ disappointing loss to Canada and tie with El Salvador in Nashville, there are no wholesale reinforcements on the horizon.

On the eve of the Olympic qualifiers, MLS spokesman Will Kuhn was on message, telling  the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a strong statement about our league and the development of young players that the Olympic tournament–a reflection of the strongest young players in each country–includes so many that are on our clubs.  It draws a lot of attention to the natural progression of our league.  The level of play keeps advancing each year.  The Olympics gives an opportunity for lots more people to see that progress.”  We’ve heard that sort of thing from MLS for several years now, but it might be time for the league to tone down the rhetoric.

If there’s been progress, it hasn’t be reflected in the play of recent U.S. U-23 teams.  The 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic team qualified for Sydney, where it went 1-0-2 in the first round, defeated Japan on PKs in the quarterfinals, lost to Spain, 3-1, in the semifinals and bowed to Chile, 2-0, in the bronze-medal game–their best showing in an Olympic soccer history that goes back to 1924.  In 2004, the U.S. failed to make it to Athens, the decisive blow a humiliating 4-0 loss to host Mexico in the CONCACAF semifinals as the locals taunted the Americans with chants of “O-sa-ma, O-sa-ma.”  Four years later, the U.S. reached the Beijing Games, where it went 1-1-1 and failed to advance to the quarterfinals.

No one wants to see a return of the 1980s and ’90s, when young American players had two hopes:  star in college, then head to Europe, where there might be an opening with a Scandinavian club or a German regional division side.  And there’s no denying that since 1996 MLS has become an international springboard for several top native sons, from Brian McBride to Tim Howard and Donovan and Dempsey.  Nevertheless, if the Olympics are some kind of reflection on the improvement of MLS, that progress has been decidedly uneven.



AMERICA’S 5-FOOT-8, 160-POUND EMBLEM

Landon Donovan won an unprecedented seventh U.S. Player of the Year award in a landslide over runner-up Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey in balloting involving nearly 200 journalists nationwide.

Donovan, who first won the honor in 2002, attracted 403 points based on three for a first-place vote, two for second and one for third.  Bradley picked up 169 points and Dempsey 157.   The only other multiple winners in the 20-year history of the award– organized by the national radio show Futbol de Primera and until recently sponsored by Honda–are goalkeeper Kasey Keller (1999 and 2005) and striker Eric Wynalda (1992 and 1996).

The speedy attacking midfielder-withdrawn forward probably became a favorite for the 2010 award with his stellar play early in the year for Everton, but he cinched it by scoring in three of the USA’s four games at the World Cup, including the dramatic winner against Algeria in added-on time that put the Americans into the second round.  He then returned home and helped the Los Angeles Galaxy finish the MLS regular season with the league’s best record.  [January 5]

Comment:  Once dismissed by the Los Angeles Times as “the overrated Landon Donovan” following the first of his two attempts to make an impact in Europe with Bayer Leverkusen, later criticized for disappearing in this match and that, the USA’s all-time scoring leader in 2010 cemented his status as not only the face of the sport in this country but a face that some average Americans actually recognize.

This country’s first notable soccer player was, probably, Archie Stark, a Scottish-born center forward who dominated the original American Soccer League in the 1920s and was dubbed “The Babe Ruth of Soccer” by a young newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan.   From the early ’30s, oldtimers fondly recall a ball artiste named Billy Gonsalves.  Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the NASL tried but failed to make league scoring leader Kyle Rote Jr. its All-American Boy, and the 1980s, when it succeeded, somewhat, in planting that title on New York Cosmos midfielder Rick Davis.   Since then, the country has produced several outstanding players, like Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, as well as personalities like bohemian gladfly defender Alexi Lalas, the fiery goal-scorer Wynalda and teen-idol Cobi Jones. 

It has been said repeatedly that what American soccer needs is a superstar–whatever that means.  It is doubtful, however, that the general American public would appreciate the subtle skills of a Xavi, a Zidane, a Cantona, a Maldini.  An incisive pass, a simple swerve, a change of direction, an immaculate take-away:  all would be lost on a viewership peering in on soccer only occasionally.  Donovan, however, does what Americans understand, has a track record of doing so, and is comfortable before cameras and facing a horde of reporters in front of his locker. 

Donovan has asked for a respite after several months of play, so it’s unlikely that he will return to Europe any time soon and add to his credentials this winter.  As such, enjoy his reign as “That American Soccer Player.”  Certainly, no successor is on the horizon, and that puts the sport’s longterm future on the fickle U.S. pop culture front in doubt.

[Full disclosure:  One ballot went to Donovan, Bradley and Steve Cherundolo, who served the role of grown-up on the USA back line in South Africa.  At 31 and playing for the obscure Hannover 96, it’s doubtful that the smart, energenic Cherundolo will ever get the credit he deserves.]