Maybe I was lucky or it was all good timing but I was fortunate to be out of the country when ra Sellik wrapped up the title and had their wee party.
I had pre- booked a long overdue trip to the states to visit my brother in Mobile, Alabama. As the city is not really touristy and wanting things to do I enquired re what sports we could watch etc.
“Well the football season is over, but the soccer season is just about to start” I was told. That statement more than reminded me I was going to a country where the love for “the Beautiful game” was relegated to not just second place but even further down the line.
In the USA soccer (as I will call it for this piece) is the most played sport among the kids. However for your child or adult average sports fan this doesn't register. They are still in love and obsessed with their sport. The big 4: Football, Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey. The sports pages of every paper and all the TV channels are full of reports, stats and in depth analysis of nearly everything concerning these. Some channels give reports on the Major League Soccer (MLS) and some papers also, but for many it is seen as an irrelevance. For the States, by and large, despite hosting the tournament in 1994, they have yet to waken up to the passions that flow through us and most of the remaining world whenever soccer is mentioned.
Schools and colleges tend to mirror the above. The most exposure and therefore funding and expert coaching is allocated to the big 4. Indeed many schools only really start organised soccer at ages 14 and up.
Many of the young players have only really taken up the game after trying and failing to make any impact in the main American sports, when they realise they are not going to be 240 pounds of defence lineman, the quarter back hero or stretch to a 6 feet 10 inches tall slam dunker. Sadly as a result the standard can be very poor.
Don't get me wrong: there is talent out there. But this seems to in a few select states only. Like Texas, California, New York, Ohio and other east coast states where there are large populations of people whose first language is Spanish, or where they are second or third generation of European descendants. Where for many their first love was, is and always will be, the soccer ball. Indeed this is noticeable in the geographical locations of the MLS teams where the majority come from these states. Team such as Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, DC United, New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas and LA Galaxy are from these states. These states are leading the way and offering scholarships and coaching for the kids with coaches brought over from Europe. In fact some of us may know young players from our own Junior leagues who have went over for this in past couple of years to help the schools and colleges. There are also more and more soccer camps set up and run by the MLS. These are run similar to those by Rangers (only cheaper).
This is a start for the USA but for the majority there is nothing of this level.
I had the good fortune? to take in a couple of the school junior varsity games that my 16 year old nephew goes to. At this point I have to say: “Go Baker!.”
Now the standard was overall poor-a reasonable under 14 side from Scotland would cuff them easily- but what stood out was the willingness and keenness from all the boys there. And it was a shame as they were receiving nothing in the way of any decent coaching. There were boys there (and thankfully I can include my own nephew) who had talent. But it was raw, rough. Honestly it would have been like night and day if just a small amount of quality coaching was brought into the school. But Baker High is a football school, it is a baseball school. It is not into soccer yet . So funding goes elsewhere.
My brother and another parent who had played soccer in Mexico had previously offered their services free of charge to try and improve the teams. This was refused by the coach (an ex-marine) as it was “his team.”
So there you go. Offer of free improvements rejected.
But to the games. Note these games use 2 referees: one for each half of the park and an independent timer! In some tournaments every game goes to 2 sets of overtime (extra-time) and if still no winners, a penalty shoot-out. I will leave it up to you if you agree with any or all of that.
First game was an away game against- wait for it- the local Catholic school McGill (with apologies to those who went to the good school in Pollok.) Strangely I was advised that not many of the other schools like McGill as they are from middle class, wealthy parents and a full of themselves . Baker hadn't beaten them at this age group for 10 years, so how good must they have felt when they ran out convincing 2/0 winners? Including a goal straight from a corner. However some of the passing, tackling shooting etc was absolute drivel. Well, when you have been used to tackling players full on with body armour and a helmet as a footballer, going in “naked” as a soccer player did put many off- the fearties. Players kicking the ball the way they faced and so on. Positional sense for some was a misnomer as at times I was watching an Eck formation of 5-0-5. What was even worse was the shouts from the parents. Some just can't get the soccer bit at all. Now I didn't expect to hear the Sash or the Billy Boys, but jeez oh:
“Go team Baker.” Go offence.” “Come on defence.” “Foul on the play.” “Alright.” And all with that slow southern drawl.
At times it was like the Soccer A.M. commentary from the Boston Pilgrims wind ups.
“It's a strike through the hole into the score zone for a touch goal to the offensive forward for a score! No flag on the play.”
The second game at home against Davidson High was much of the same: except this team were absolutely rank. 4/0 should have been 20 or 30 such is how bad they were and how bad the finishing was. The style of the coach in this game can be summed up in 2 examples. Through a mix-up my nephew and his friend missed “training”. They were still stripped for action but, whereas the subs came and went –as many as you want and at any time- they did not get on and were not told this as punishment. They walked away with 10 minutes to go and are now “off the team.”
Then the 2 goal scorers who had a brace each were taken off when a hat-trick was on the cards. Why? Well, only coach knows that one.
As I stated earlier, the kids have no overall love of the game from an early age. They may love to play but they do not go home and watch a favourite soccer team on ESPN channel. No; they will have a football team, a hockey or baseball team and so on that they watch with a passion. They will have the team top and have posters of their team and favourite players on the walls in their bedrooms. They will beat the ground in frustration when their team lose or miss a chance. But it is a team from a completely different sport.
How many of us will come back from playing soccer then watch a favourite team from a completely different sport?
I cannot end without mentioning the facilities here on the campuses and local parks. They are awesome. Baker High has the equivalent of a 3500 seater stadium down 2 sides with food and drink outlets, toilets, and scoreboard-the lot. This for a school of approx 1500 pupils! Beat that Albion Rovers. The colleges and universities are even better equipped. Many, I am told, are like Murray park. And they are dotted all over the country.
So there you have it. In some states great strides are being made, but the great change will not occur overnight or very quickly at all until, in all of the schools and colleges and in the mhedia, soccer is given the same billing as the big 4. When it is on the campus from the same ages as these sports and kids can get to grow and love their local soccer team. Just now there are some political shenanigans to help keep their “own” sports as the big ones. Soccer faces many battles to establish itself.
As a result of this, change could be some way away.
However with superb facilities and a population of 250 million to call on, when the good ol' US of A does finally waken up to soccer, the crowning of them as World Champions in the future would not be a case of if but when.