What would a victory over England mean for U.S. Soccer?
Would a victory, coupled with a strong showing in the rest of the tournament, signal a shift in the culture of soccer within the U.S.? What has David Beckham, the English star who currently plays (until his injury) for the Los Angeles Galaxy, done for the landscape of soccer in the U.S.? And – most importantly – who would play Landon Donovan in the movie, if the U.S. were to make magic on Saturday and at this World Cup?
These were some of the questions addressed today at the U.S. base in Irene, South Africa. These questions, and, of course, the nuts and bolts regarding Jozy Altidore’s ankle and Oguchi Onyewu’s fitness and Bob Bradley’s starting lineup for Saturday.
U.S. Soccer President, Sunil Gulati, addressed some of these big-picture questions. He spoke rationally about the progress the U.S. has made in the last 15 years, the stability of the MLS, the consistent qualification of the U.S. in the World Cup, the grass-roots foundation of youth programs, and the gap between the U.S. and other European nations.
Here’s one indicative quote: “I think we do get a lot of respect in many places in the world, but there’s still people in the U.S. who ask, ‘So, when do you think soccer will take off?’ And there are still articles across the Atlantic that say the MLS is a good pub team …” – the best part of this quote was that there were many English media members in attendance, one who corrected Gulati and said the articles actually call the MLS a “Mickey Mouse” league.
Gulati was convinced that Saturday’s U.S.-England game is the most talked about, most hyped game in many years. Gulati said the “water cooler” factor was high. Here were his exact words: “I think there will be more interest in this game than any game the U.S. has played in some time.” Ever? “Maybe. Yeah. I think that’s probably right.”
Now, I don’t claim this blog is an accurate reflection of the buzz surrounding the World Cup. It’s running on a philly.com page that’s currently focused on the Stanley Cup Finals. And even if the Flyers weren't going for the Stanley Cup, chances are good it would still be about the 100th most-read blog. In addition, it’s based out of a city that is historically passionate about sports, but more specifically passionate about its own teams. Also, I’ve been in South Africa for a week, without ESPN, without traditional means to evaluate the interest level for Saturday’s game.
All that is to say that I have no idea if people care about the World Cup, or, more specifically, Saturday’s game against England and the U.S.’s fortunes in this tournament.
If it’s taken 15 years to get the MLS to where it currently resides in the sporting landscape within the U.S., it’s going to take much more than a victory over England to boost it higher in the public conscience.
As for Beckham’s contribution, Gulati was modest. He didn’t claim Beckham had caused a significant shift in the public’s awareness of the MLS, but there was something there to which his presence added.
“David has taken us into households that didn’t appreciate the game, didn’t know the game … but it’s, ‘Do people come back to watch the Galaxy again, when Beckham isn’t playing?’ … He’s made it clear that whatever effect he’s had, he wants to see that continue, whether that's in coaching, ownership.”
As for the actor to play Landon: “I don’t know who would play me, but I like Johnny Depp.”
Here are the hard-core updates about the U.S.: Bob Bradley said that Altidore’s ankle was fine. “Jozy, it cost him a couple of days, but from the start we knew it was very minor and the fact that he’s back in regular training certainly means he’s available for whatever role we choose for Saturday.” When asked if he felt Onyewu was ready for a full 90 minutes (he hasn’t played a full match since his patella injury seven months ago), Bradley said, “Sure.” Later, he elaborated: “The fitness program that we put our players through to prepare for the World Cup, I think, has every player in our 23 ready to play 90 minutes if asked.”
Does Bradley yet know his starting lineup for Saturday? (This is very different from asking if Bradley would like to share his starting lineup, which we’re all quite sure he would not). Bradley: “We have an idea of what the lineup might be. But then there’s always the part that as you go through a week and prepare for the game, you keep an eye on different possibilities.”
There’s some thought that, because Donovan and Clint Dempsey provide flexibility with their ability to play multiple positions, we might see both Donovan and Dempsey in the midfield and two attackers – maybe Altidore and Findley or Altidore and Buddle. Just a thought.
Here’s my fun piece of South African info for the day, from a Sky News report about Bafana, Bafana’s parade through a Johannesburg suburb, Sandton, which took place today: “Schoolchildren were allowed to leave at midday on a special extended month-long World Cup holiday, adding to the party atmosphere.” A month-long holiday? And I thought the city was frenzied yesterday. I drove through the fringes of that South African parade today and I wish I could adequately convey the hysteria surrounding the country’s team, Bafana, Bafana, and the entire World Cup. Here’s the link to the Sky Sports article: MONTH-LONG HOLIDAY!
I’ll end with my favorite quote from today, from Mr. Landon Donovan: “I know I’m going to play well on Saturday.”