4 July ~ US soccer authorities and the Disney-ABC-ESPN globo-mega-mediaplex contrived a fiendish scheme to boost audience and interest in the World Cup, I have learned from well-placed sources, illegal wiretaps and bribed officials. The players were instructed to allow the opposition to score a goal in the first ten minutes of each game, chase around the field aimlessly for a half, then come storming back in the last 45 minutes, producing a finish of unparalleled excitement every game. But the plan – dubbed "Project 2010 And Then Some" – backfired in hideous fashion when the players didn't realise they were not supposed to do this in the first period of extra time. And we lost to Ghana, 2-1.

Ah, if only the US habit of, even insistence on, allowing an early goal-a-game could be explained away with a black conspiracy theory. It cannot. We had conceded first in six of ten games in the final round of Concacaf qualifying. We only lost one of those matches. Problem is, in the knock-out round of the tournament, one is one too many. As every commentator has pointed out, the reliance on the adrenal rush of impending doom will catch up with you.

Our biggest problem right now is not depression or despair or even embarrassment: It's withdrawal. We wanted another 90. We'd become junkies ourselves. Newbies had no idea how fast it all ends. Old hands forget, until the whistle blows, that two years of qualifying and a crazy exhilarating campaign in the groups turns to nothing in an instant. Nothing, plus a two year wait to begin two years of qualifying. The Concacaf Gold Cup is no World Cup substitute in the way of the European Championships or Copa America in the between years.
Do we change the coach? Most journalists and the smarter fans aren't calling for Bob Bradley's head. The bloggers are, but that's what bloggers do. We achieved our goal of getting out of the group. (A note here that the real Project 2010, launched in the late 1990s, was a youth training scheme designed to put us in the final by 2010. You have a right to ask, how did that work out for you? I would answer that outrageous optimism is the only way you build football in the US.) We played like a team and behaved like team and never gave up. It's not an excuse but fact that Bradley was working with three first-choice defenders who had injury problems this season – Oguchi Onyewu (knee), Carlos Bocanegra (hernia), Jay DeMerit (scary weird eye disease).  We were going to leak goals, and we did, early.
 In the US coaching debate, there is first our age-old question: Do we need an American to coach Americans, someone who understands what it's like to come from the US and play in a footballing world? I don't know if we need a European genius, but I'd ask how those Italian and French coaches worked out for the rest of you? The other real reason we could change is the same reason managers bring on subs: It's the only thing they can do during a game. US soccer chief Sunil Gulati may fire Bradley and get a new coach because it's the one thing he can do after the tournament. Well, the one easy thing.
Even without my invented conspiracy, the audiences for this World Cup have been astounding. The loss to Ghana was seen by 14.9 million people on ABC – a record for the tournament – and 4.5 million on Spanish-language Univision.  Telecasts on all nets have reached 34 per cent of US TV viewers, according to ratings firm Nielsen Co.  A total of 99.2 million viewers watched at least six minutes of play through the end of the Round of 16, surpassing the 91.4 million viewers who watched at least some of the games throughout the entire 2006 edition. That means with the same time difference and the US already out, this World Cup will far exceed the record.

But the problem with football here does not involve coach or media attention. Both a New York Times magazine story on the Ajax youth program published three weeks ago and Jürgen Klinsmann speaking in post-match analysis on ABC pointed to the issue. Klinsmann, echoing the article, said in the US we have turned the pyramid upside down. We pay to have our kids trained so they can get college scholarships. In Europe, clubs pay – or at least spend money on training – kids to turn them into pros. He was talking to parents in the audience about to write checks for the autumn season of "travel soccer." Until that changes, nothing changes. By the by, Klinsmann is a man Gulati would love to hire.
A final postscript: In my mid-tournament report here I noted that the week before the World Cup, the NY Red Bulls of the MLS merited a one-paragraph news agency story in the New York Times, which commits two pages a day to the tournament. My question was would World Cup interest change MLS coverage? Well, the Red Bulls ended their World Cup break with a 3-0 victory over Kansas City Saturday. The win got one paragraph in the Times. Rich Zahradnik

Comments (5)
Comment by The Exploding Vole 2010-07-04 11:52:34

"... outrageous optimism is the only way you build football in the US." Succinctly put.

Comment by kbmac 2010-07-05 08:29:35

In Scotland, outrageous optimism is what we use to get crowds to qualifying games. It's used pretty widely throughout the football world.

Comment by Jongudmund 2010-07-05 12:50:49

What's been very interesting is seeing how ESPN's exported talk shows like Pardon the Interruption and The Sports Reporters have included bits on the World Cup - and not in the patronising way that you'd expect.

There was a discussion this morning on one of the shows about the use of technology in soccer "just for goals" and they made the point that generally the offside calls are right. And there was a serious argument over whether Luis Suarez should receive a stiffer punishment.

And they started the debate by calling Sepp Blatter a moron. Can't see that happening on the Beeb.

Comment by Jongudmund 2010-07-05 13:00:07

They also made a number of points about the diving and cheating that has been going on and how that really affects the way soccer is perceived in the US - "FIFA needs to deal with the corruption in their sport".

Comment by Reed John 2010-07-06 22:54:14

I agree that FIFA should do whatever it can to clean up the game, but the officiating in the World Cup is hardly worse than what we see the most popular sports in the USA.

At least FIFA acknowledges the problem by not allowing the guys who screw up to ref more games. That doesn't really do anything to improve the situation (and in some cases is a bit unfair to that ref), but it's a less irritating than the "move along, nothing to see here" mentality of the commissioners of our pro and major college sports.

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