Phobias of American Fans Exemplified on ESPNHow the fears, faults and insecurities of American fans are personified by ESPN’s color commentators of the Euros
by Abram Chamberlain | Monday, June 11, 2012
For fans of the American game, the Euros can be a grueling time. It’s not just the fact that, once again, American soccer takes a backseat to European football, but it is also that all our faults, insecurities and fears rise to the top.
There is not a clearer place that the trembling qualms, culpabilities and concerns of American supporters – both of MLS and the USMNT – were seen than the choice of color commentators chosen by ESPN to lead the discussion of European football to their primarily casual American audience.
Foremost, there are our insecurities as represented by ESPN’s go-to soccer analyst Alexi Lalas. To this day, Lalas is perhaps the most famous soccer product of the United States of America. He is someone who excelled as a player, was a short-lived GM at 3 AEG-owned MLS clubs, but who many American supporters look at as the denim wearing, clown prince of US soccer. That particular assessment of Lalas is unfair. As a player, Lalas was more than adequate in leading the USMNT in the 1994 World Cup. He was a more than passable player becoming the first American, in the modern game, to play in Italy’s Serie A.
However, regardless of his on field accomplishments many ardent US supporters can’t look past the wild hair, goatee and transitory music career that were originally part of Alexi Lalas’s appeal. To them he will never be more than a fool. Forget his, mostly, intelligent discussion of soccer on varyious shows. Forget that he has a column that he writes for The Guardian newspaper, where he discusses both American soccer and English football. People are insecure about him as a talisman of sorts for US soccer so he is seemingly relentlessly mocked.
Is he the perfect analyst? No. Is he horrendous? No. But like those who see the struggles of the USMNT to beat Antigua and Barbuda on a rain-soaked pitch and compare it to the showings of Italy and Spain while simultaneously ignoring the poor showings or more comparable teams like Ireland, there is nothing Lalas (nor American soccer) will ever be able to do to ease those insecurities. Casuals look at the Euros and, without thinking, say that the USMNT is just not good enough to compete with those teams. And as insecure soccer fans we agree that we are wearing an international soccer dunce cap despite the fact that many of these opinions are incorrect.
So while Lalas is representative of our insecurities, Michael Ballack is our faults. He is our reliance on something known and quantifiable to make soccer work. ESPN wanted Ballack to be a great commentator for the Euros. He is, in actuality, incredibly personable off the pitch. Yet, in his first few days as a color commentator he has sounded like a character on a bad Disney Channel sitcom who was “accidentally” told by his producers how many people would be watching him pontificate. Frankly, he was poor. Very poor. Horrendously poor. But we’ll excuse him because he is soccer star Michael Ballack.
ESPN took a chance on the unknown product Ballack him because he is an internationally known commodity … on the pitch. His performance thus far has proven that on pitch performance doesn’t necessarily equate with in the booth prowess. Yet both ESPN and the American public seem to believe that his expertise as a commentator is better than that of Alexi Lalas. In actuality, it is not. It isn’t even close. Lalas wasn’t on the same level as Ballack on the pitch, but as an announcer he blows him away. This is a fault of ours. Just because something, or in this case someone, has that European pedigree does not make them inherently better than the American equivalent.
But more than even our insecurities or our faults we have our fears, namely Giuseppe Rossi. Yes, the kid from New Jersey, who still considers himself American, but ended up playing with Italy, is what we all fear. Granted his career has still yet to unfold as most thought it would, but the cringe worthy nature of how we react to him shows just how frightened we are of losing.
Every time Rossi spoke during ESPN’s Euro coverage, whether it was the pre or post game show, any moment where he added his two cents the American soccer community trembled in anger. Memories of Yank-departing Rossi, Subotic and more recently Chandler began rearing their ugly heads. People who were watching the games with casuals then had to explain where their troubles with Rossi lie. We had to express our over exaggerated fears.
We listen to Rossi and worry about Chandler, about Joe Corona, about hundreds of other possible USMNT players who could be called up. We are mortified that we could lose another one, without thinking of players that we have raided from other countries (Terrence Boyd, Sydney Leroux, Andy Najar … almost). We fear of losing our best players, our most developed players, our most ready players without thinking that we have – quite often in fact – been wearing the other shoe.
The Euros are here. We cannot hide from what it tells us about the evolutionary process of soccer in America. Yes, the USMNT is still not good enough. Yes, we do still need the thoroughbred natures of David Beckham and Thierry Henry for many to view us as legit. And, yes, we probably still do need to worry (at least a little bit) about losing players to other countries. But all this is changing, albeit slowly.
In a short time the USMNT has morphed from a sporting after-thought to a pseudo respected national team. Beckham and Henry may be the most famous MLS players, but they are not the best. The North American league is starting to keep high caliber players as opposed to continually losing them to higher paying European clubs. MLS is seeing record attendance for the second year running. Its salary’s mode and median has improved again. Soccer is continuing ever growing popularity as a pro sport in North America.
And while things are not all sunshine, rainbows and puppy dogs for the American supporter; things are getting better. The Euros will bring out our flaws, especially to ourselves, but it will also help the continual growth of the game. Even if it means staring directly into our faults, insecurities and fears for the next month.