Soccer and American Culture

Last Thursday I returned from a 10-day trip around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Other than the ancient, Mayan ruins and the beautiful, sandy beaches I got caught up in only one thing: the World Cup. It was everywhere.

A village square in a town slightly north of five thousand was ghostly empty when we rolled into town. The cause? Chile was battling Spain, the reigning Cup champs. (Chile upset the Spaniards 2-nil.)

Towns shut-down and waiters at restaurants would deliver food and then watch for five minutes; okay, you probably get it: Mexico likes soccer.

“Soccer sucks! It’s so boring! Why would I want to watch 90 minutes of something when no one may ever win?!” – The part about watching 90 minutes and ending in a ‘draw’ still bothers me (especially nil-nil ones), but I’ve really begun to realize how great of a sport soccer is. Before I left for Mexico, if I told anyone, the only advice I would get is, “Don’t drink the water!” Thankfully, I didn’t come back with any water-borne toxins, but I did come back with an itch for soccer.

It takes teamwork, strategy, and makes nearly everyone around the world pause to watch. Even if you don’t appreciate the sport itself, the global fascination with soccer is remarkable.

Speaking from my experience in Mexico as well as in high school, soccer is on the rise. My friends like the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL – like “normal” American teenagers – but this World Cup has drawn all of us to the television for games that didn’t feature the United States.  Both fandom and participation are up. The United States High School Soccer Federation recently reported a 7.4% increase in youth soccer participation from 2008 to 2013. This may be because many parents are, at the recent concussive revelations, pulling their kids out of American football and giving them a new fall sport. Many teens also find baseball’s pace boring, which leaves one outdoor, mainstream sport: soccer.

Not only that, but the United States is, on a global scale, enjoying an unusual benefit of playing in the World Cup: underdog status. The underdogs are always fun to root for and they make victories more exciting (see: U.S. over Russia in “Miracle on Ice”). So even though the United States has 100 million more citizens than the second-largest country participating in the World Cup, they are at a disadvantage.

For tomorrow’s Round of 16 match against Belgium they are only spotted a 26% chance of winning, according to the Bloomberg sports bureau. The small chance of winning is contrasted with the fact that the United States has nearly 5-times the amount youth in the country than Belgium has total citizens.

Soccer Participation

Even though I’ve made plans with friends to watch and even though viewership for USA-Germany reached record numbers, some aren’t ready to accept soccer into American culture. This Ann Coulter piece is a prime example. Please read it. (Her saying soccer is “Un-American” because it’s collectivist is just like saying football is “Un-American” because a Quarterback can’t succeed on his own – he needs his offensive line.)

Her point about individual achievement not factoring into a soccer match clearly didn’t watch Guillermo Ochoa’s standing-O worthy performance against Brazil for his home country of Mexico. (Alas, my example points to a game that ended in a 0-0 draw. Nothing is perfect.)

Some also might say that soccer, the sport itself, isn’t becoming mainstream in the United States and that, rather it’s the World Cup. They may have a point, but it says something that talents like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey hail from the MLS. (“What?! THE MLS?! That terrible American league?”) Bradley plays for Toronto FC while Dempsey runs the pitch for the Seattle Sounders and the pair of them helped the US compete with teams like Portugal who has players in the upper echelons of La Liga. Not only that, including this year, Fútbol at Fenway (hosted by Liverpool, Red Sox joint owner John Henry) has sold out three consecutive years. Soccer, yes the whole sport, may be gaining traction here in the states.

It may take some getting used to, but Ann Coulter & Co. should prepare for their worst nightmares.

 

Sam Fortier is a Freshman at Syracuse University where he studies broadcast journalism. He also searched endlessly for a “Chicharito” jersey while he was in Mexico. 

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Participation Spells Disaster

I have a trophy. It’s a trophy from the spelling bee from when I was in the sixth grade. The funny thing about that spelling bee is that I didn’t spell one word correctly. Going with the youngest students, and alphabetical order, I was one of the first students to spell. I misspelled ‘fiesta’ – I mixed the I and E! – and went out. Again: I didn’t spell one word correctly. But I still got a trophy!

Trophies such as those are a symbol of the shift in today’s society. Five years ago, when I was in Middle School, we had a thing called field day. The upper grades (6-8) competed and each kid tried to be in the top three for each event to get a ribbon. I never was in the top three and I never got a ribbon. My sister, who is in eighth grade now, received a ribbon though she qualified in nothing. Everyone now gets a participation award. That does not make sense to me. The same goes for teachers, I’m sure everyone in their high school careers observe that a teacher can’t pick out one person for a skill because it could hurt the self-esteem of another.

Bill Gates made a famous speech about high school once, and he called it: the 11 things you won’t learn in high school. It was poignant then, but is even more so now.

“Rule 1: Life’s not fair – get used to it” and “Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. They’ll expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.”

Now, I am not up here to say we should stomp on the dreams of children, or in any way degrade them for poor performance as just kids. This goes in any contest – athletic or not.

There’s no reason to be overly harsh to kids, but there is no reason to be overly coddling, either.

Think of that field day like the Olympics: There’s gold for first place, silver for second, and bronze for third. Same with ribbons. Now, imagine giving an iron medal to each person that participated, but didn’t come on any of those places. It’s silly, it’s the adult world. And – If we were to give out participation awards – it should be athletes who give up nearly every aspect of their lives for a sport that the majority of the world cares about for one half-month every four years – not a ten-year old who may not have an interest in soccer, but played because his parents wanted him to.

Parents. As much as parents want to protect their children from failure as much as possible, I understand that nurturing nature, but it’s a part of life. Aren’t we doing a disservice to our children by not preparing them for the “real world.”

Like I said earlier, I don’t mean be overly mean to a kid about a little game, but do we have to give him a medal just because he tried each time?

Participation awards go along the same sentiment of merely trying, they try to make everyone level and equal.

That “real world” I talked about earlier, there, each individual person is different and unique. Why are we pretending that everyone is the same when each person’s differences make this world so much fun and so very interesting to live in. If everyone was the same, the world would be hollow: different on the surface, but the same on the inside.

Besides, does a hollow trophy really make you feel any better?

When I see that trophy, I don’t think, hey, wow, I tried really hard and did my absolute best in that contest when I was 11. I don’t think, phew, I got a trophy, yay me for participating. That’s because I don’t look at it, I nearly couldn’t find it because it was set to be thrown away, stashed in the attic – unimportant.

When I think of that spelling bee now, I laugh. I laugh because there was a time in my life when I couldn’t spell fiesta, I laugh because I made myself look silly in front of a bunch of people. I laugh because the whole experience was fun. I don’t need a trophy to tell me that.

The Name on the Front: U.S. Youth Soccer

Academy and High School soccer in the United States seems to be headed toward a stormy confrontation. Soccer clubs have academy systems, which run for 10 months of the year, practicing four days per week and playing once on the weekends. Academy is to soccer as AAU is to basketball – it’s a business and extreme travel team. These soccer clubs are relatively new to the U.S. system, but have been systematically manufacturing elite talent in other countries, such as fútbol-crazed Spain and Brazil.

Clubs have premiere teams which, at that level are highly-demanding and exclusive. The main struggle between the Academy and High School systems are that they force players to pick between them. You can only play for one. There are arguments on both sides, Academy promises tougher competition, which means greater improvement, and more college scouts; a way to get an education at a reduced financial burden. High School offers different advantages such as representing one’s school, or playing with friends.

However, both are locked in a battle for commitments from the best players to join their teams. Coe-Brown feels the effects as well. Coach of the Boys Varsity squad, Mr. Gompert, explains, “Academy soccer is a business” and therefore may place the development of soccer skills above the development of character for young men. “Ensuring a player leaves the program having a good experience, playing with friends and developing an appreciation for the game of soccer is most important,” Gompert elaborates.

However, development is just what some students at Coe-Brown are looking for. Keith Hill, a Senior, and Zac Cote, a Sophomore, both attested to the difficulty involved in the decision to pick where they played. Hill, as the older of the pair, focused in on an issue central to seniors by citing, “[The decision] came down to which would give me a better opportunity to get into college.” He chose Seacoast because of the longer season and tougher competition.  Cote offers agreement and laments with some complaints from the high school side saying, “I wish Academy wasn’t a 10 month season” and confirmed his decision to play Coe-Brown soccer last season was because of friends. He did express more enthusiasm however when he mentioned his perpetual improvement and how difficult training sessions were. Both remarked that they believe Seacoast is worth the commitment.

Coe-Brown is just a microcosm of the major issue occurring in the United States, it represents the overarching conflict between the two sides.

So while the name on the back of the jersey will always remain the same, the team on the front could change quite a bit in the near future.

A Minor Deal

On Saturday night I had a chance to volunteer with Ed Randall’s “Fans for the Cure” program at a New Hampshire Fisher Cats home game. The initiative, started by Randall, a NYC sports talk-show radio host, seeks to educate everyone – not just men – on the facts of prostate cancer. It may be embarrassing to talk about or something that doesn’t often come up, but the importance of knowledge and early detection cannot be ignored.

It is the #1 non-skin cancer in United States. Approximately 240,000 men will receive a prognosis of prostate cancer in the calendar year 2014, and that – to give all baseball fans an easy reference point – is enough to fill Yankee Stadium five times.

So not only did I feel good about handing out pamphlets at the game, but it came with an added bonus. We were giving away raffle tickets to win a bat, signed by the whole Fisher Cats team. My father and I became the primary hawkers of the educational literature and began contesting one another, loudly, to see who could give away more. It ended up being fun and rewarding. My father and I would rope people in with what we considered witty (and no doubt others considered obnoxious) banter and then my mother, sister, and girlfriend would help sign up.

The bat, signed by the whole team

The bat, signed by the whole team

Left to Right: Mom, Sam, Dad, Sarah

My thanks goes out to Ed Randall because after the top of the second inning, all the material had been distributed, the crowds dispersed, and we all took our seats to enjoy the game. The cellar-dwelling Eastern League Fisher Cats 5-0 loss to the Eerie Seawolves was softened by the fact that we had great seats provided to us by the foundation, mere rows behind the back stop. (What is a seawolf, by the way?)

So the game was great, a wonderful time had by a family basking in perfect baseball weather. The food was good – part of the family even partook in the healthy option dining – and affordable. Then after the game, as there is so many weekend nights, the Fisher Cats rewarded patient fans by giving them an enormous fireworks show. Really though – enormous. It lasted fifteen consecutive minutes and about two-thirds through my girlfriend leaned over to me and said, very impressed, “Wow. This is Fourth of July material.”

Five tickets, food for all, and parking habitually totals under $90 for Minor League games. What we got out of it was a great, 9-inning baseball game that whistled by in 2:10, a high-caliber fireworks show, and a nice night outside where the family was forced together to talk and laugh.

I’m sorry if this sounds too “wow-what-a-perfect-time-this-sounds-like-an-infomercial” but it’s true. Everyone agreed that, for a group of five, there couldn’t be a better deal with better rewards out there. Seats inches away from the field are $12; they have awesome promotions, entertaining half-inning gimmicks, and (sometimes) rehabbing MLB stars.

I’m an avid baseball fan so heading up to Portland to watch a Boston Red Sox top minor league prospect is something I enjoy doing, but even if you’re not that interested in the players and you’re only there for the game, it’s still great. Even Buzzfeed agrees that there are 29, solid reasons that Minor League Baseball is awesome. (Spoiler: one of their reasons involves a urinal and the NH Fisher Cats logo.)

Minor League games bring you closer to the action. So close, in fact, that you may wind up in the front office. Not literally, of course, but – as my mother pointed out to me during the game – there were certainly a lot of dudes in golf shirts jotting down some serious notes. They clustered like the cool kids table at lunch and during the intervals of the half-inning rest, they’d converse amongst one another, holding up their clipboards in mock frustration or laughing about a radar gun reading.

I was intrigued. Ever since my mother mentioned them, I would keep track of their movements out of the corner of my eye. The Seawolves called in a relief pitcher who threw gas late in the game. The radar gun hit 96 on the center field wall and I saw one scout widen his eyes a bit and jot something down, nodding his head ever so slightly. I suppose that’s about as enthusiastic as they get.

Naturally, I wanted to ask what they were looking for. It’s not uncommon for a guy to hit 96 – one pitcher did earlier in the game – but what were they really looking for. During the seventh inning stretch I maneuvered through an empty row and sat down next to a blond-haired man who looked to be in his mid-20s. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Shaun McNamara, a professional scout for the New York Mets.

What were the Mets doing watching a game between the affiliates of the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers? They aren’t in the same league.

I learned that McNamara, a Worcester, MA native, covered Detroit, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh for the New York Mets from the majors on down through the farm system. He’s been at the business for three years and says that it goes from Spring Training to Thanksgiving, which warrants him a seven-week vacation until he’s back at it. McNamara, Brown University alum, was the pitching coach for Trinity College.

Usually a scout has to start off as a coach or player, McNamara explained. He was of the former, a pitching coach at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. And from there they can rise in the system. In the crowd of maybe 20 scouts, McNamara was the junior-most colleague by at least a decade. There were about 10 men who appeared to be life-long baseball men.

When I asked McNamara if he was looking at any particular player or any particular attribute, he said in pitchers, scouts look for arm speed and velocity while in batters they check bat speed and discipline.

So I sat next to McNamara for a few half-innings and spent quality time with my family during the game. Afterwards the fireworks exploded brilliantly above us, but I looked down into the stands and around at my family. What a great way to spend a beautiful night; outside in a ballpark, getting a great value.

First Day in Boston

Well, today was the day. I started my internship at WEEI in Boston working 5-11 AM on their flagship, morning-drive show, Dennis and Callahan.

Living so far away in New Hampshire meant up by 2:30, out of the house by 3 and in the parking garage by 4:45. Needless to say, it’s a crazy time.

But I was rewarded as I was able to do some really cool things today. When I showed up they immediately gave me a tutorial on their audio-editing software “NewsBoss” and I was asked to compile a list of which teams needed shortstops. (The Mariners, Pirates, Tigers, and Mets if you were wondering.)

Of course I fetched breakfast for the production crew and spent the day learning the system with two other interns, one who is leaving on Friday. I made a “cut-sheet” which is to say I organized audio clips from a Tom Verducci interview they did at 9:30.

For further instruction I found news stories on the insider trading case involving Phil Mickelson and researched this Bergdahl business in the swap between the United States and Taliban.

As I write this I publish another Monday article, but at 9:53 PM, I see that just five hours in the future my alarm will sound and I will ride my trusted steed (my car, LaVern) into Boston.

Even though above there is a complaint about the job, I love it already. Any place where knowing the MLB landscape on the thin Shortstop market is vital, work knowledge, I want a piece of it. I’m ready for me.