Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Copa American attendance is just fine. YES, it is!
Have some folks actually complained about Copa America attendance, or did I just dream that? Because, just being honest here, if you don’t see the attendance at the ongoing tournament as a success, you may have been dropped on your head too often as a kid.
All things considered – there is a lot of context and information to take in here – the crowd counts are good. Not spectacular, perhaps, but quite good.
For openers, this is a first-time event. Soccer nerds know what this is, and plenty of Latin American fans are familiar, even if this isn’t exactly their father’s Copa America. But there a big segment of the American ticket buying public wouldn’t know Copa America Centenario if Leo Messi himself knocked on the front door to explain it.
Building brand awareness is tough, even when it comes to the world’s most popular sport. So keep that in mind.
Secondly, the numbers are pretty good on their own. The critical thing to remember here is stadium size, which is apparently skewing perception for the lesser well-versed crowd. The United States is blessed (well, “cursed” if you favor the smaller, more intimate grounds) with a smorgasbord of massive, venues.
That’s boffo for generating revenue. The one downside is the look on TV, where viewers see swaths of empty seats.
But wants we wade through the shallow pools of perception and dive into the raw numbers, things are swell.
The games have averaged 41,637 (through Monday night’s matches). And that’s with elimination rounds still ahead, contests with Argentina, Mexico, the United States, etc., that are sure be house-packers, or something close to it.
Although massive facilities are becoming more vogue around the world, the globe remains full of solid stadiums that just don’t approach the capacity of a CenturyLink Field, MetLife Stadium, NRG Stadium or any of the seven other grounds being used for Copa America Centenario.
So around the world, crowds of 41K (remember, that’s the average so far) would stuff most grounds.
Consider these comparisons: Attendance at Copa America 2015 in Chile was a tick above 25,000. Average attendance at the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine was 46,000.
So, again, there’s nothing wrong with the Copa numbers, especially considering they are almost certain to climb from here.
Now, could they have been better with more modest pricing? Perhaps, but that’s a different conversation. And since organizers were learning on the job here – sorting out a new tourney in a brand new market, that is – it seems fair to cut them a little slack on this one. They’ll learn. After all, they want to see those big buildings packed, so they’ll be incentivized to adjust prices accordingly.
2. Brazil and the (formerly) beautiful game
Wondering about this today: If Brazil had benefitted from a missed refereeing decision, would the demands for video replay be sung so loud and long? I doubt it.
I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think it’s a terrible thing that Brazil and its distressingly pragmatic manager Dunga got bounced from Copa America. It is unfortunate that it happened on a dubious goal. (By the way, that thing was so hard to see conclusively. I am in the minority here, but I am still not 100 percent convinced that Raul Ruidiaz used his arm to punch the Brazilians out of the tournament.)
Typically, it’s the big kids on the block (like Brazil) gaining benefit of the doubt in these bang-bang, difficult-to-judge sequences. Let’s not pretend that pedigree teams like Brazil or Argentina (Hand of God, anyone?) or Germany (Torsten Frings handball uncalled against the United States!) or France (Thierry Henry got his team into a World Cup with some naughty sleight of hand, didn’t he?) aren’t usually on the better end of this stuff.
Beyond that, you have to see the big picture here. First, if we get this tournament again, perhaps teams from South America will take it more seriously. Brazil saved Neymar for the Olympics and generally didn’t seem to prioritize claiming glory at Copa America Centenario. At least Dunga and his players didn’t come right out and say it. Uruguay’s coach did!
Now, both are out before the elimination rounds, and Dunga is looking for his next gig.
Second, upsets like this (Peru over Brazil) and tales of super human deeds (Messi’s mesmerizing half-hour marvel) are what makes tournaments! Short term, sure it’s better to keep Brazil around, stuffing stadia and ginning up TV ratings. Long term, everyone will talk about the night Brazil was KOed by some anonymous Peruvian’s right hook.
Finally, maybe this will finally shake something loose with Brazil, where the beautiful game hasn’t just died – it has died, been tossed into the trunk of an old Chevrolet Cavalier and taken to Monster Joe’s salvage yard and, you know, “disposed of.” It’s gone.
Brazil, so not jogo bonito, was awful by its standards. They’ve got to get back to a more joyous game, a style that better represents the ridiculous cache of talent available. Zero goals against Peru. Zero goals against Ecuador – and the beneficiary of a goal erroneously disallowed in that group opener, too.
Brazil didn’t deserve to be in the second round. It hurts the tournament in the short run – but it can only help restore some beauty to the beautiful game in the long run.
3. U.S. Open Cup begins to crowd the schedule
The back side of FC Dallas’ 2016 schedule is a bear. Not one of the cute, cuddly ones, either; it’s one of them really big, mean, Leonardo DiCaprio-fightin’ bears.
Last year’s Supporters Shield runner-up did front load its season with MLS matches; Dallas and Sporting Kansas City have played 16 games, more than every other team. But U.S. Open Cup approaches; Dallas and 16 other MLS clubs get into the 103rd edition of the knockout competition this week.
And CONCACAF Champions League approaches, handing Oscar Pareja’s club four additional matches and two lengthy trips into Central America. All against the backdrop of the impending, taxing Texas summer.
On the other hand, there are a couple of schedule karma boons in the short run. First, Dallas gets an extra day of rest this week since it re-joins MLS action on Sunday (rather than Saturday, like most teams). Yes, they travel into Kansas City, but it’s not a long trip. Plus, Kansas City travels, too, returning from its Open Cup mid-week match in Minnesota.
Plus-plus, SKC is likely to be without U.S. internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, still with the United States.
Generally speaking, schedule difficulties balance out. The key is always thus: exploit your advantages, your extra day of rest or catching opposition short, etc., and then cover up your soft spots as best possible. Good, deep teams generally manage it better over the long haul.
4. Let’s talk about “slow starts” to tournaments
We hear a lot lately about marquee teams starting slowly in tournaments. That slightly toxic talk is ricocheting so frequently because the summer of 2016 is heavy with delicious tournament action: Copa America and now the European Championship, a pairing from the soccer heavens, made more glorious in our land due to fortuitous timing. Euros by day, Copa by night. It could only be better if it came with free Ben and Jerry’s!
Copa America is into its elimination stage now. But the Euros in France have just started, so we’re getting a fresh round of punditry banging on about favored teams needing to be better. After just one match!
It seems that in the rush for strong opinion, the opportunity for cool context sometimes gets lost. Take Spain and its opening match, a 1-0 win over Czech Republic. The Spanish, run as always by the regal Andres Iniesta, were in charge all the way, even if the “W” wasn’t secured until the 87th minute. Here’s what BBC pundit Robbie Savage told BBC Radio 5 live: “This Spain team are lovely to watch but at times a bit dull and boring.”
I heard the same about France as the host country, also with possession aplenty, needed a late goal in last week’s tourney opener to finally overcome a strong Romanian defensive effort.
Here’s the deal: Teams like France and Spain don’t land in tournaments looking to win style points in the opener. It’s not like tournament organizers would see a 3- or 4-goal win and declare, “Tournament over! … Clearly, no one can overcome this unbeatable group, so let’s cancel the remaining games and all go for wine and baguettes.”
Performance in one match gets them three points. But growing into top gear over four, five or six matches gets them feted with wine, women and song. There is no need to mash the accelerator from the jump.
And yet we hear the critics talk of “possession without purpose,” or “lack of penetrating passes,” which always sounds a little silly. Patience is a virtue, remember! Keeping the ball away from another team is a purpose; they can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Further, when teams are dug in defensively (as Romania and the Czechs mostly were), the better team certainly doesn’t wants to give the ball away possession in bad spots and victimize themselves on counters (which is exactly what the opposition hopes). So caution rules.
In this new 24-team Euro format, 16 teams advance. Which means that bright lights such as France, Germany, Spain and even England’s young lions need only mind this one rule through the first round: Don’t be a total disaster! Avoid that, and you’ve seen yourself into the knockout stages.
Somehow, that seems to get lost in the punditry translation.
5. The Little Five
5a. Inside NRG Stadium for the Mexico-Venezuela match, I was heartened at the nice respect the packed house paid during the moment of silence for the terrible attack in Orlando. And just minutes after, I was equally disheartened to hear the Mexican fans traditional, homophobic chant on goal kicks and punts. “Of all days, couldn’t they give that one a rest today?” I said to the writer one seat over. I don’t want to hear about tradition; that thing needs to disappear, and needs to disappear in the worst possible way.
5b. Going back to the Brazil-Peru brouhaha, and just so there is no confusion: In FIFA events, there is no TV monitor at the 4th official’s table. There once was, but it was removed specifically so there could be no suspicion of video replay being used in those moments that seem too close to call.
5c. Two MLS teams will round the season’s halfway poll this weekend. Three more by next week. This is no “young season” anymore, is it?
5d. Whispers out of Houston Dynamo camp are that players have enjoyed a bit more tactical instruction and individual role direction they are getting from Wade Barrett, who is now officially the team’s interim head coach. (As opposed to before, when Barrett wasn’t really interim head coach but was, you know, doing everything an interim head coach would do.) Either way, it’s a great opportunity Barrett, who played in 234 matches for the organization. And it’s another opportunity to prove that MLS familiarity usually trumps fancy foreign names in MLS coaching.
5e. The summer transfer window for MLS – the primary window for most countries but defined as this league’s “secondary transfer window” – runs from July 4-August 3. Theoretically this year’s big transfer name, Tim Howard, could be available to play for the Rapids on July 4 as they host Portland.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.