Plane Seats

Looking Beyond Seats On A U.S. Soccer Plane – Part I

Every four years when the World Cup rolls around, you’re guaranteed to come across countless versions of the “Who gets a seat on the plane/bus/boat to [insert World Cup host country]?” game. In the United States, the game typically involves an analysis of players who are yet to secure a ticket on the relevant mode of transportation, and often an analysis of where the U.S. team lacks depth.  Now trust me, I love Seats on a Plane as much as the next man, but surely there must be more if the goal is to critically assess our talent.

All of these Seats on a Plane discussions have led me to a deeper truth. We love pointing out weaknesses, but rarely do we pay much attention to how to fix these weaknesses.

At the end of the day, where do I turn when I want to blame someone for systemic inadequacies instead of playing the rather short-sighted seat and plane game?  The more I considered this question, the clearer it became that determining the right place to lay blame would be a great first step to unearthing and addressing the underlying problems that make Seats on a Plane such a challenging game in the United States.

So, ultimately, who is responsible for developing soccer in the United States?

If you’re listening to soccer journalists, bloggers and fans, it’s the federation, leagues, coaches and players who shoulder the responsibility for developing quality players to represent the U.S. in international play.  For these folks, directing blame tends to be a purely external exercise.  But with all the finger pointing that will inevitably take place responding to this question, rarely will you hear this answer: it’s the media, the journalists, bloggers and fans, in addition to the federation, leagues, coaches and players, who are ultimately responsible for developing U.S. soccer.

Yes, it’s you. It’s all of us.

We see the same dynamic in our politics.  Is the poisonous tone of U.S. politics simply the fault of selfish, tactless, narcissistic politicians, or are Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Fox News, MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, Michelle Malkin, and bloggers and protesters on both sides of the aisle equally responsible for shaping the tone of conversation and ultimately what becomes a worthwhile topic of conversation?  Regardless of whether you agree with any of these people, what all of these people say matters simply because they have platforms, and these platforms play a role in shaping our collective focus.

So how are we using our platforms when it comes to U.S. soccer, and specifically, addressing the depth of our talent pool?  The depth of the U.S. player pool is an issue that goes beyond player selection, form or confidence. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to the voices almost singularly focused on these surface issues. Of course, as a country we need to improve technically.  That’s a no-brainer.  But if we’re being honest, next to raising the technical level of U.S. players, improving access and broadening the base of players might have the greatest long-term effect on the quality of players we take to the World Cup. But as long as we see each other as passive spectators in the U.S. soccersphere rather than participants with agency, progress on these issues will take much longer than it should.

Our voices have the power to both marginalize and popularize issues.  And our soccer conversations, whether intentional or not, have popularized certain topics, while relegating others to the soccer backwaters.  We see this phenomenon every day in the issues our media selects as newsworthy. Brian Williams recently did a three minute story on an orphanage he visited in Afghanistan, raising $50,000 even before Williams returned from Afghanistan, which led to the opening of four more orphanages.  Look at what happened, at least monetarily, when the world finally paid attention to Haiti.  The moral is simple.  Press matters.

Obviously, every member of the media is not Brian Williams. However, if people listen to you, whether you are Brian Williams or a blogger with an audience of eight, you have the power to influence, which is a power that could be used responsibly.  Journalism can change the status quo by simply covering a story.  And the status quo in soccer coverage needs to change by accepting some level of responsibility in shaping the future of our game rather than naively accepting the position of passive observers who are only interested in commenting on how yesterday’s fixtures impact some arbitrary weekly ranking system. Our collective priorities matter.

Admittedly, every journalist, blogger and website cannot, and should not, be responsible for covering everything.  Specialization must prevail if only for efficiency reasons.  But when one looks at U.S. soccer coverage in aggregate, the scope of coverage is shockingly narrow.  Surely there’s the ol’ lack of resources argument, but it really doesn’t take much to periodically shift one’s focus away from the standard stories detailing why Player X is the best, worst, being transferred, improving, or getting a seat on a plane. Really, it doesn’t.

So what topics are being omitted from coverage and why? Several topics come to mind, but the two issues that I’ll briefly address are access (both access to the game and the reasons why access issues are seldom discussed) and diversification.  These two issues are related.  Access is the problem, and diversification, although also a problem, can be part of the solution.

Access issues fail to reach the soccer public for several reasons.  We prioritize breaking news, scores, and game analysis, inevitably leaving out deeply relevant stories that don’t fit in the traditional traffic-generating paradigm that has long infected the online sports world. We also probably shy away from access issues because they are inherently political, which harshly confronts the notoriously apolitical world of sports journalism.  Lastly, access issues are likely pushed from our list of priority topics because the pool of voices reporting on U.S. soccer is not diverse enough.

Focusing on Prioritizing Breaking News, Scores & Game Analysis

In the soccersphere, it’s clear that breaking news, scores, and game analysis are our priority.  That’s where the traffic is, and where there’s more traffic, there’s more money.  We all know that generating high levels of traffic doesn’t require the best content.  One can certainly strategize around actual thought and be successful.  That’s not to say that the soccersphere doesn’t require quality coverage on these topics.  There are already a handful of great voices covering U.S. soccer, some only getting paid in pride.  However, when the collective focus seldom goes beyond breaking news, scores and game analysis, there’s a problem.  As we focus on these topics, important stories are slipping under the radar.  And, as these stories fly under the radar, serious issues continue to fester that ultimately influence our Seats on a Plane game.

After the U.S. men are exposed by another team, how many stories can be written about the fact that we need more technical, more dynamic players without ever really exploring the roots of the issue?Covering the U.S. national teams, and even MLS for that matter, not only requires covering the teams themselves, it should also require some regular investigation into why our teams are not better, or how they can improve.

Why a team might not be good enough is as much of a story as the fact that a team might not be good enough.  Why we seem to struggle finding four capable forwards in a country of over 300 million people is a question that clearly goes beyond height, pace, and form. Discussing what Herculez Gomez did in Mexico last week is certainly relevant to Seats on a Plane, but his recent exploits are only part of the picture.  The responsibility of exposing the full story behind our inability to confidently fill seats on a plane lies with all of us. Unfortunately, there’s a paucity of attention being paid to these underlying issues.

What is obvious is that the vast majority are probably content with the conversation the way it is.  We’ve been trained to consume our soccer news in a very breaking coverage-esque way. Sure, more full-time, quality U.S. soccer writers are needed, but we need to take our blinders off.  Even if we had extra sets of hands rhythmically pounding on keyboards, I’m not sure that the scope of coverage would dramatically expand beyond more nuanced or creative coverage of breaking news, scores and game analysis based on what we’ve seen in the industry thus far.

For as long as I can remember, soccer writing has largely focused on the aesthetics of the game — who’s doing what, where, and how well —  with periodic tabloid filler updating us on the lives of players we love hating but can’t stop watching.  Writers focus on how the game is played.  They also focus on what prevents players from reaching a desired level, but generally only as long as the prohibitive behavior involves womanizing, drinking, drugs or, in England, Glen Johnson stealing toilet seats.  Rarely do our writers focus on why the game is played or how our society can transform the game and vice versa, both issues that, coming back to the plane game, are just as relevant to our national success.

What we focus on collectively tells us what we think is important.  If breaking news and scores are what we find important, then we’ll live in a soccer world where yesterday’s events continue to trump context.  That might mean that a football version of TMZ.com is the lucrative bet for content publishers.  But if we’re serious about improving the level of U.S. soccer, maybe we should start to worry about where we’re headed before we get there.  Responsibly broadening the scope of our coverage is vital, but it involves all of us thinking about what we prioritize in our soccer coverage.

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In Part II, I’ll expand on the politics of moving beyond breaking news, scores, and analysis, moving towards Part III where I’ll propose a solution to some of these problems.

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  • http://futfanatico.com Elliott

    I definitely follow your vibe on the “big media focus” that often overlooks interesting and in depth reports that go beyond match recaps.

    Still, why do you deem the US a failure? It’s been only 20 years since the famous goal heard round the world in 1990, and anyone who saw that US team at Italy 90 and this US team surely would come to the opposite conclusion in terms of development.

    I agree that access to the game needs to improve beyond the Pay-To-Play ODP and Suburban Youth Club model, and Bradenton has limitations, but growth is measured in decades, not matches.

  • Miriti Murungi

    Elliott — I agree. We’ve come far since 1990. But in many respects, it’s been dragging a dead horse on the access front. We’ve come to expect a pace of development that is impressive in certain respects, but could be much more impressive. To me, it comes down to whether we should accept avoidable mistakes or not.

    The MLS website debacle is an example of a series of avoidable mistakes. Early misunderstandings by MLS of how to approach the Latin community IMO was an avoidable mistake that they’re still doing their best to recover from.

    Although US soccer is undeniably better these days, when you dig into youth programs around the country and into communities where there are scores of kids who want to play but have no access, it really opens your eyes to where we can be — especially when you see how good some of these kids are.

    We’re running a story soon on Compton United that will address some of this. But in short, we’ve made huge strides, but can do much better. Lots can change in twenty years, especially in the U.S. if priorities shift.