The United State is Becoming a Soccer Nation? 

Soccer and the United States normally are not associated together. However, the sport that so many bash because of the most humorous score line in athletics, “Nil to Nil,” is not foreign to common fans in the states.

Even the typical football junky, who lives and breathes for the bone-crunching NFL, gets excited for the World Cup every four-years. Yet, until a winner is crowned in red, white and blue, the average Joe and Josephine will note be enthralled to watch.

Baby steps have been taken both on the national team landscape, as well as the Major League Soccer platform. Once the United States got their shot at hosting the World Cup in ’94 that was the catalyst to announce the game’s presence.

Still, it wasn’t too long ago when MLS games were relegated to Spanish broadcasts. Now, soccer fans have options to watch league games on multiple platforms on cable and satellite providers—including primetime slots on ESPN. However, when a great moment in U.S. soccer history is made, sometimes the Spanish announcers tell the story the best.

The jubilation that “neutral” commentators possess in moments like that, are timid compared to fans across the fifty-states.

Soccer is spreading, whether the general public takes note, or not. Remember the videos that went viral capturing American fans erupt when Landon Donovan scored against Algeria.

Fans understood the moment and what was at stake, even though the opponent was Algeria. That one moment propelled U.S. soccer, to where it presently sits.

Major League Soccer is more popular than ever. With that popularity, also brings stability for the entire soccer federation. League expansion has unfolded with new teams in Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, as well as the construction of multiple soccer-specific stadiums.

Looking across the league, ten of the 17 MLS stadiums are soccer-specific complexes built after 1999. Thirteen of the league’s stadiums were built after 2002, including Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, and Qwest Field in Seattle, where the Seahawks and Sounders both call “home.”

State-of-the-art stadiums are a necessity in any sport. Although, just like the mainstream sports, the classic mainstay stadiums are an attraction in their own right.

Take the NBA’s Madison Square Garden or the NFL’s Lambeau Field; those bleachers are always packed due to constant tradition within the community. And winning isn’t required, with the Chicago Cubs proving their ineptness at Wrigley Field since 1916.

The MLS has a similar keystone stadium in Portland, OR. Jeld-Wen Field (formerly known as Multnomah Stadium) opened in 1926. However, prior to the MLS expansion of the Portland Timbers, Jeld-Wen Field underwent a $31 million renovation in 2010.

Upgrades are nice, but the fans still need to pile into the barn each home game. Capacity tops out at 22,000 patrons, but the anthems and overflowing support in Portland is eerily similar to the English Premier supporters.

The Timbers home stadium isn’t the Rose Bowl or “The Meadowlands” yet on an average Wednesday night, Portland Pride was a 12th, maybe a 13th man.

A team and a fan base outmatched national superstars and world-renowned athletes Landon Donovan and David Beckham. The same backdrop has been present in Los Angeles at the Home Depot Center, Chicago, Philadelphia and all the MLS stadiums.

Many might not believe 20,000 fans at a sporting event is subpar compared to the other professional heavyweight leagues in the states, but the contingency is strong for soccer.

Baseball might appear strong in the major markets, yet the Florida Marlins pull in 3,000 fans on an average night. In the MLS, the stadiums are averaging 13,000 fans per game across the 18 organizations.

And sellouts are up 62% from the 2009 season. People are flocking to the new sparkling facilities across the states, and even the women’s game has lured eye balls to watch.

ESPN drew 13.5 million viewers for the final between the U.S. and Japan, the net’s largest audience ever for a soccer match — outperforming Major League Baseball’s All Star Game, which had averaged an audience of 11 million five days earlier.

The Women’s Professional Soccer league won’t be booming to those numbers anytime soon, but the World Cup still exposed viewers to the league.

Fans in the United States are still missing the one aspect of a sport that every fan enjoys: the sweet satisfaction of victory. Once the United States wins the World Cup, fans will fully accept soccer as a national sport.

Published on August 6, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”


USA vs. Mexico: It’s Not the World Cup, but It’s the Gold Cup

Few times in sports, fans get what they want. Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, soccer fans are in for a treat.

In the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States will play host to “El Tri Colores” the Mexican national team at the Rose Bowl.

Following last year’s World Cup letdown for both countries, the importance of this match is accelerated to another level. This game is more than supremacy between bitter, border rivals. A spot in 2013 Confederation’s Cup in Brazil is on the line.

Looking back on USA’s trip to the Confederation’s Cup in 2009, the experience—and more importantly, the victories—appeared to catapult the Yanks in the final stages of qualifying and invigorated confidence into the side on African soil.

Although that confidence playing in South Africa was short-lived and fizzed out by Ghana, yet again, the Americans brought a country together in hope of reaching uncharted territories.

Winning the Gold Cup wouldn’t be anything new, but beating Mexico to do so would sweeten the pot. Since 2002, Mexico and the United States have been the only winners of the Gold Cup.

The level of intensity between these two countries has increased over the last decade in direct relation to the U.S. team improving their quality of play tenfold. For years, Mexico was the dominant team in CONCACAF, and a win over their neighbors to the north was expected by Mexicans and fans across the world.

A rivalry on the field between the teams might carry over to the seats in the venue as well. The gamesmanship over the years has been as much of the rivalry as the action on the field.

This game might be listed as a neutral-site game, but the venue is in Pasadena, California. There is no doubt the Rose Bowl crowd will be filled to the brim with fans from both sides.

Despite the major-market Los Angeles teams, both college and pro, the Gold Cup final match is the hottest ticket in town. After all, the Los Angeles Lakers failed to capture a three-peat victory in the NBA and the United States is looking to accomplish a similar feat in the CONCACAF Gold Cup after securing victories in 2005 and 2007. The US national team is looking to secure Gold Cup victories in three of the last four competitions.

As if the rivalry between Mexico and the USA needed any more, it is only fitting that the most famous outdoor arena in the country hosts the biggest soccer event of the year.

It’s not the World Cup, but for the supporters in the bleachers and the players on the pitch, it is just as important.

Published June 23, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”


Soccer Gets Hit With Another “Black Eye”

In a sport that many equate it’s theatrics to daytime soap opera, soccer has managed to steal a few headlines recently. However, not all of the hot topics were positive.

Just in the past two weeks, Wayne Rooney scored a scintillating goal, utilizing the ever-exciting bicycle kick. A Chilean under-20 soccer player used an Ecuadorian striker’s arm and hand to receive a favorable call.

But before the foolish “slapping his own face” moment, earlier this week Italian midfielder, Gennaro Gattuso nearly choked an opposing assistant coach from Tottenham of the English Premiere League.  No laughs here, yet.

The attempted choke by Gattuso was after a shocking head butt following AC Milan’s 1-0 loss in the first leg of the UEFA Cup. Needless to say, Gattuso’s forehead and grappling hands penetrated no further as both squads called on reinforcements.

For pure soccer fans, the event with Gattuso, or “the bulldog” as he is known in Italian circles, was disgraceful. The eruption following the match at the San Siro went against all sportsmanship ideals, and contradicts the entire spirit of the game.

What Gattuso did was wrong. That fact is clear as day. However, when the incident occurred, no one questioned why Tottenham assistant coach Joe Jordan warranted such an attack.

After all, Jordan was not playing the full 90 minutes on the pitch; he was relegated to the coaching box, as one of many assistants.

There is no doubt that there was “chirping” involved between the two parties. Once again the world remembers that there is trash talking in soccer, and it crosses language barriers.

Look back to the 2006 World Cup final match that featured Gattuso’s Italian side versus France. A similar incident occurred when “racial obscenities” were voiced between Marco Materazzi and France’s Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane was one of the most transcending figures in European football until the moment his baldhead struck Materazzi’s sternum. It was a painful moment to watch, especially on the ultimate stage with the Jules Rimet Trophy on the line.

That moment was completely out of character by Zinedine Zidane. Everyone knew something must have been verbalized.

With the incident between Gattuso and Joe Jordan, the same is the case. However, due to Gattuso’s already antagonistic nature, he is labeled as the one and only villain.

Gattuso had a similar situation unfold in 2003, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Ajax was the unlikely recipient of an openhanded slap.  Back then, Gattuso received a one-match ban for the crime.

With Gattuso’s latest incident, the bulldog will be sidelined for five UEFA Champions League games. As for the “instigator” Joe Jordan, his hands are clean.

Contrary to Zidane’s future after such an event, Gattuso has always been labeled as a “push the limits” defensive midfielder, if anything his credibility in maintaining that tag persists.

Now, the players are not the only ones worried about Gattuso’s shenanigans, the coaches on the sideline have to keep a watchful eye on the feisty bulldog.

Gattuso, who is suspended from the upcoming match, has been advised to not even travel with the AC Milan side to England. Perhaps when Tottenham and AC Milan play the return leg at White Hart Lane on March 9th, the story surrounding the game will involve highlight reel goals, and the actual game itself.

Until then, the game of soccer will be carrying a black eye regarding the latest “Soccer’s Wildest Videos” escapades.

Published on February 23, 2011

“Kris Francis On Sports”


Euro 2012: What Happens When a Country Wins Before They Even Score a Goal?

In sports, success is ultimately defined by wins and losses. In soccer, or world football, goals eventually determine a team’s ultimate glory and accomplishment. However, as a country, especially the hosts of a major tournament, success goes far beyond goal posts and field.

Success leads to celebration and jubilation from the winning side’s fanbase, but what happens when a team and a country has already won, before the competition begins?

For example, take a look back to the World Cup in South Africa. Never before has the game of football graced the continent of Africa, let alone with an opportunity to host the world’s largest tournament: the World Cup.

There were many naysayers regarding the ultimate success and tireless planning of the committee in South Africa, but in the end the infrastructure that was demanded and desired byFIFA regulations, was in fact delivered.

If you need any help remembering, here is a gentle reminder,  check this out.

Expectations were exceeded, and the host nation, South Africa, put on a month-long carnival for the world to see, a nation to live it, and over 500,000 fans from across the world experienced it first hand.

The traveling fans experienced a side of the world that is never on display, not even for the football world to see. South Africa opened its doors and welcomed the tournament with open arms, through all the doubt.

Although the games were entertaining, the success that the country received going forward from the tournament in terms of roads, hotels, airports, community centers, athletic facilities, etc will boost the overall growth of nation that was undoubtedly struggling prior to winning the bid to host the World Cup.

Well, that same story that took place in South Africa this past summer will try to unfold in a similar fashion in 2012 for the Euro 2012 championship. Sure, this is not the World Cup, but to host a continent’s soccer championship is a major undertaking. The stability of a country’s government, safety and security, as well as amenities are all heavy determining factors in deciding on a host nation.

Although the World Cup is hosted in only one nation, in recent tournaments UEFA, the European football governing body, has decided to allow two hosts to share a bid in a joint effort in a situation like South Africa, where the host nation’s country might not be up to par with a United States, England, Italy, France, Japan, etc in terms of infrastructure or gross domestic product.

For instance, when you look around those countries, for the most part, technology and communities are in the year 2010.

The same shortcomings that were applied to South Africa prior to their overwhelming job hosting the cup have been applied to Poland and Ukraine’s joint bid to host UEFA’s Euro 2012 championship.

Although these are European Union countries now, it was not too long ago that both Poland and Ukraine’s governments were under corrupt Soviet rule. Soviet control ended in 1991, and there have been many improvements in quality of life for both countries, however, in terms of sports, their athletic arenas, structures, and youth development are centuries behind the other trendy European destinations.

Soccer not only brings entertainment to the countries that host, but upon completion of the tournament, an improved lifestyle is the reward for a job well done. Just ask South Africa.

However, just for a second imagine that you are watching the World Cup final, the Super Bowl, or any major sporting event, but the event is being hosted in a 5,000 “seat” capacity stadium, built in the 1940s, with barbed wire, chain link fence barricades, and public safety officers wearing body armor from head to toe.

This very same situation was the scenario that the UEFA committee completely ignored in the decision making process in choosing Poland and Ukraine as joint host.

Then again, I doubt FIFA ignored many of those same drawbacks with South Africa, and the continent of Africa hosting a major tournament this past summer. I would almost go as far as saying that UEFA and FIFA welcomed these obstacles, so that in turn these two countries can now grow as a country not only in football but in economic endeavors as well.

Stadiums across the country now have state-of-the-art features, 100-yard long high definitionjumbotrons, first-class luxury suite boxes, luxurious seats, and every amenity imaginable. For Poland and Ukraine, their stadium are old, run-down, concrete structures, many with no seats orseatbacks at all, let alone cup holders, but with the job of hosting comes the job of building.

In 2012, the eight host cities for the Euro championships are Warsaw, Poznan, Wroclaw, and Gdansk in Poland, as well as Kiev, Donetsk, Lviv, Kharkiv in Ukraine. Some of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe, but their athletic facilities overall attractiveness and fan friendly environment left a little more to be desired. 

Prior to construction and renovation of stadiums, airports, hotels, roads, train lines, etc, corruption ran ramped throughout Polish football. From 2006 until 2009, more than 200 arrests of referees, coaches, team officials, observers, players, as well as many high-ranking Polish Football Union (PZPN) officials were made due to a major match-fixing scandal.

By the start of the 2009 Polish football season, only 15 referees or officials remained from that time period—all the rest were deemed corrupt.

In Ukraine, the story was eerily similar. Extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking, and even murder were among the dubious activities that Ukrainian Premier League team owners were involved in. Local police in Ukraine found the trace of a widespread organized crime ring called “The Bashmaki,” or “the shoes,” of course. The shoes, not cleats, were responsible for over 50 deaths, and kidnappings in 2008.

In analyzing this scenario, no matter how well intention, one might think that UEFA was naive in choosing a joint bid from two “East Bloc” nations, and their Soviet Union-riddled infrastructures, especially over a more readymade host: Italy.

However, just as South Africa was thought to be an underwhelming choice for host of the 2010 World Cup, so too are the same stones that observers cast upon UEFA’s choice of Poland and Ukraine two years ago.

However, as the tournament commenced on African soil, the questions were answered immediately, and the resounding sentiment, was a job well done. For Poland and Ukraine, those same congratulatory are expected.

Euro 2012 will only last three weeks, compared to the month long World Cup, but the infrastructure built for the event, such as roadways and train lines, will be a backbone for these two countries for decades to come.

According to the Warsaw School of Economics, a report was compiled that claimed Poland’s accumulated GDP growth until the year 2020 will amount to 27.9 billion zloty, or 6.74 billion euro.

Whether or not you score that great play as goal for the home team is your decision. Moreover, a sense of euphoria was reported to spread through Poland when the announcement was made in April of 2007, and a rebirth of dying soccer nation was reborn. It was almost as if their team had already won and scored all the goals, but the tournament was over four years away.

Before we know it the tournament will be here. Qualifying has already begun, and if all goes well in preparations by the host countries, the only thing left to do is actually score and win contests during the tournament.


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