Thursday, January 03, 2008

ATH: Soccer Story of the Year

From the US Natoinal Team Players Association

China Syndrome
By Dan Loney, 01/03/2008 11:02 AM

LOS ANGELES, CA (Jan 3, 3007) USSoccerPlayers -- For me, the number one story in soccer last year was the US Women’s National Team. It was one of the two things in the game that penetrated mainstream American reporting, the other of course being…oh, what’s his name again. Galaxy midfielder. Foreign dude. Kevin Harmse? It’ll come to me.

Both were portrayed as huge pratfalls for their teams and the powers that be. They’re wrong about Whatshisface – actual sports fans are pretty forgiving of injuries, by and large, and significant numbers of fans turned out to see him not play. If all of American soccer’s failures had similar consequences, MLS would be bigger than ExxonMobil. Besides, the guy won’t have flopped until he takes the field at full strength, and then proves he can’t do the job.

Like, say, the Women’s National Team did. Those same actual sports fans are much, much less forgiving of losing when the cause is pure self-destructive ego followed by finger-pointing. This is even true for fans that follow entire leagues filled with such behavior. Women’s soccer fans are a different breed entirely. That’s because the US Women’s National Team represented and cultivated certain ideals.

The Women’s Team, with the considerable help of Nike, carefully built an image of selflessness, solidarity, and sportsmanship. It was a wildly successful experiment in positive identity, a marketing master class. Significantly, the team lived up to the hype. They won all the time, they showed plenty of personality, and were true role models. Is it even possible to dislike Mia Hamm? It is not overstatement to say that team played a considerable part in today’s picture of mainstream feminism. It was, simply put, a higher standard for team athletics.

Granted, it wasn’t a significant enough cultural force to, say, support a professional league. But the fall of the WUSA didn’t damage the reputation of the sport and the players, because it didn’t strike out against the image. After all, it’s about perseverance and teamwork, not popularity.

The Girls of Summer fad ebbed, which led to a series of miscalculations in Chicago and Beaverton.

Nike assumed that to the American public, the women’s soccer team was a blank slate. The USSF agreed to a campaign calling their most successful program “the best team you never heard of.”

No player was a household name anymore, but the team was still a recognizable brand – and one that carried a certain series of impressions and images with it. These were advantages that even Nike has had only rarely in its history, and the USSF never had previously. It’s astounding that they didn’t realize how or why they succeeded in 1999, but there it was.

It’s perhaps a little understandable that Nike, megalith that it is, would be out of touch with one of its smaller target audiences. Nike is used to mass media, lowest common denominators, and short memories. But the USSF revealed a serious misunderstanding of its fans, and what they in fact had been selling over the previous eight years.

One coaching decision in China, and people sure heard about the National Team. How could anyone, even the denizens of Soccer House, have guessed that their coach would have, for reasons that are still irritatingly murky, dumped his number one goalkeeper. After all, it had never happened before during a World Cup, Men’s or Women’s.

Cynically enough, had the US won, all would have been forgiven, the Women’s Team re-introduced to an adoring American public. Assuming the United States didn’t blow it in the final, which in retrospect seems depressingly likely. The one silver lining is that Marta might have spared us even greater humiliation at the feet of Birgit Prinz.

Even if Hope Solo had kept quiet afterwards, fans probably would have revolted against what they were given. The US seemed to meekly accept its fate. This was not, to say the least, what US fans signed up for, and the US Soccer Federation clearly did not plan for damage control.

That said, it’s one thing not to plan, it’s another to run around the Titanic making sure the lifeboats all had holes drilled in the bottom.

The Federation is making belated changes. A new coach who has reset the squad to art least the perception of pre-World Cup harmony. The Olympics are on the horizon, and, with them, a chance at redemption.

And thus, another miscalculation is in the offing – the Olympics do not trump the World Cup anymore, period. At best, maybe there’s a storyline that plays out this summer that wins back some previously diehard US fans – provided the wins keep coming.

That’s why the US Women’s soccer team was the number one story of the year. Because this was the last year in a long time they’re ever going to be.


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