Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tim Howard on SportsCenter This Sunday

This is good publicity for Howard and the U.S. Men's National Team, as well as for Everton who will be playing in the FA Cup and week from Saturday. Oh how matters have changed in the past 15 years.

I am reading a book called Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America's Forgotten Game by Dave Wangerin, a very well researched and detailed book about this history of soccer in this country and it extends much farther back that the historic 1-0 win over England in the 1950 World Cup. I highly recommend it not only for histocial purposes but also for the amazing storytelling of Wangerin, you would hardly know you are reading a soccer history book.

Wangerin devotes and entire chapter of the book to one of the most historic events in soccer history in America, the World Cup in 1994. At a time when there was no top flight, truly professional league in America, the United States staged one of the most commerically successful World Cups ever. The U.S. Men's National team, which automatically qualified as the host nation, was expected to crash out in the group stages just as it had in the World Cup 1990 in Italy (the first appearance in the World Cup by the U.S. in 50 years), but did not. The charismatic "hair boys" of Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones and Tony Meola, couldn't even generate a great deal of interest in America and unless you were a soccer fan (like me) or playing host to a dozen orange clad, maniacal Dutchmen (like me and my Dutch college roommate), you would have hardly known there was a World Cup going on. The press coverage was dismal, particularly of the U.S. Men's National Team.

However, the success of the American side in the tournament got some media attention and it seemed like soccer would do okay as a niche sport.

In 1994 you could probably ask 1000 random people on the street if they could name 2 players for the U.S. national team and probably get 1000 blank stares. Today, I would imagine maybe 150-200 of those 1000 people could tell you that Landon Donovan plays on the U.S. side and maybe even Tim Howard. You will also get about 100 people who will say David Beckham, but at least they can name a soccer player.

The fact is, 15 years on from the World Cup 1994, soccer is a much more covered sport in America and it is not just the odd game here and there. ABC/ESPN covers every Men's National Team game live and in JP Dellacamera and John Harkes, they have a pretty good commentating team. (At least my head doesn't hurt when I listen to them). In 1994, ESPN would never have spotlighted a soccer player like they are with Howard. In 2009, they are. Granted Howard has a great soccer and personal story. He has played in the MLS and with Manchester United. This season he has had 16 clean sheets, a record for his Everton club. He has posted multiple shutouts for the U.S. National Team and he is ensconsed as the U.S. #1 keeper barring injury. Howard is the latest in a long line of gifted American keepers that started with guys like Tony Meola and run through Kasey Keller, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Friedel, Brad Guzan and developing keepers like Chris Seitz.

I also like the fact that ESPN is highlighting a keeper rather than a goal scorer like Donovan. Don't get me wrong, Donovan is a big part of the American team, but tapping and spotlighting a vital defender is important for the U.S. non-soccer audience to understand the game.

Howard will be spotlights on ESPN at 10:30 AM and 6:00 PM Eastern Time.

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