Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Year of Ascendance or Disaster?

An important year awaits U.S. soccer, both on the men's and women's sides.

The women will face the year adjusting to a new coach as Tom Sermanni officially takes over from Pia Sundhage, now in charge of the national team in her native Sweden. While the team has understandably expressed excitement at the prospect of having a new coach with new ideas after five successful years under Sundhage (understandable because, well, if they're going to play, they're going to play for Sermanni), several key players are aging at positions that usually expose age (everywhere but keeper, really).

On the professional front of the women's game, the National Soccer League is set to begin play in April. The league announced this past week the allocation of National Team players from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to the eight franchises, which include essentially are four teams from the former WPS (Boston, "Sky Blue", based in the New York City area, Western New York (Rochester), and Chicago) and four new clubs and cities (Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, and Washington D.C., which had a team for two years before it was moved to Florida).

The players were allocated with the help of a panel of experts, presumably to assure parity. Some effort appears to have been made to allocate American players close to home as well (for example, Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe to Seattle, and Abby Wambach to Rochester).

While I don't profess to be familiar with any of the Mexican or many of the Canadian players, at first glance the Portland club, with Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Christine Sinclair from Canada look to have the makings of a powerful offense.

Presumably, as much interest will be focused on the business model of the new league as it tries to succeed where two of its sisters recently failed. Smaller, and in some instances shifting, venues and subsidies from the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national teams may at least provide a tourniquet for the financial bleeding that is bound to occur with any fledgling professional league.

Meanwhile, on the men's side the National Team faces the final round of qualifying ("The Hex") for the 2014 World's Cup. Who will be in the starting 11 against Honduras on February 6 is anyone's guess, including, more likely than not, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's. Keeper Tim Howard is a lock. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are certainties, barring injury. But even where they will play is not clear. Bradley could play holding midfield, or as an offensive mid. Dempsey could play out wide in a 4-3-3, as a withdrawn forward, or up front (although he does not seem to be preferred by club or country as an out-and-out striker).

Michael Bradley is one of the few certainties in the U.S. lineup.

The big questions are who will make up what was an inconsistent defense and who will play up front and in what configuration. Is it time to replace Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra in back? Will Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Eddie Johnson, or Chris Wondoloski play up front and alone or with a partner?

Whatever the line-up, the results have to be sufficient to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.  There is no doubt that soccer's popularity is on the rise in the U.S. But in the women's game, the interest has been limited, to this point, to the national team.

By the same token, the rise in popularity on the men's side has largely been concentrated on the European professional leagues, particularly the English Premier League. And while it's encouraging that there are more broadcasts of soccer than ever, and that results even occasionally creep into smaller newspapers, it doesn't do a lot to grow the professional game in the States.

In order for that to happen, soccer fans have to take more of an interest in MLS, either by attending or just by raising the t.v. ratings. And that's most likely to happen if the men's team, stocked primarily with MLS players, qualifies for its seventh consecutive World Cup. Failure to qualify will not only be a blow to the growth of the game here, but also to U.S. Soccer, which invested its future (not to mention a lot of cash) in the talismanic Klinsmann.

I may be a Pollyanna, but I think Klinsmann will figure it out and the U.S. will qualify either first or second in the group. And the star of the team will not be Dempsey or Altidore or Landon Donovan. It will be the former coach's son - Bradley.

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