Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beckham and Soccer in America

Clemente Lisi writes about a recent appearance by Ruud Gullit in which Gullit said:
"David is more than just a football player and I think he does extremely well to give football here a lift," Gullit told Reuters. "I think [American soccer organizers] are afraid of football because it's so popular everywhere around the world. I think they will just control it so it doesn't become more popular than their American sports.

"I have my doubts if they really want to make [soccer] popular. Some sports already have had a bit of a dive so they don't want American football to become less popular, or basketball or baseball."
I am not here to debate Beckham's qualities as a player (which are considerable, though waning). What I would like to say is that soccer in America is plenty popular, as a youth sport. There is no other sport in America that has more kids playing and in fact, I believe there are more kids playing soccer than throwball (American football), baseball and basketball combined. I don't have a citation for that, but I read it somewhere and given what I know of the game in America, I believe it to be true.

The problem is that professional soccer, for so long, has tried to emulate other professional sports leagues in America instead of letting the game grow in a more organic fashion. There has long been professional soccer in America, just not in a format that is as readily popular as other leagues. But let us remember, in the early days the baseball leagues, basketball leagues and throwball leagues, there were fewer distractions seeking a consumer's money and these leagues were of poor game quality as compared to today. The same is true in American soccer as well.

Now, David Beckham is but one man, a high profile, brand name man in the world of soccer. He could exert considerable influence in the game, but let's face it, right now the powers that be in the top levels of American soccer have little to do with the development of the game, believing that its grassroots support will eventually carry the day. They maybe right, but that is a waste of Beckham's high profile. Here are three things that U.S. Soccer/MLS could be doing with David Beckham, instead of letting him train with AC Milan over the MLS offseason:

1). Coaching and player clinics. No David Beckham is not a coach, but he has been coached by some of the best men in the game like Sir Alex Ferguson. Beckham can help coaches in American soccer, arguably the weakest link in the sport, become better. Beckham can use his star power to attract the best coaches in the world to come to the U.S. and conduct coaches clinics and camps for several weeks at a time. Then Beckham, the guest coaches and the American coaches can apply what they have learned to player clinics.

2). Work with the U.S. Soccer Federation (U.S.S.F.) and MLS to improve the management of the federation. Beckham has inroads at the English FA and while the English FA may not be the perfect model for American soccer, the FA is quite accomplished at helping the game develop in England.

3). Talk to American sports fans. Not soccer fans, they have already been converted, but to American sports fans in general. In May Gordon Bradley passed away, an icon in American soccer, but the one thing that Gordon Bradley was, above all else, was a cheerleader for the game. Bradley could explain the most intricate aspects of the game and the simplest, in terms that anyone could understand. He loved the game and he loved teaching people about the game. Beckham loves the game, he has lived it in all its glory (minus a World Cup), he should be helping American sports fans to appreciate the game, its physical demands, its emotional highs, lows and the excitement of a game that most Americans would love for both its simplicity and its complexity.

Beckham, when he came to America, said he wanted to grow the game in America. Size is not our problem, advancement is. Beckham needs to focus on that, more than anything else.

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