Sunday, September 4, 2011

U.S. Friendlies Produce Limited Theater for Sports Fans

What is the role of the American sports fan supposed to be for U.S. Soccer Men's National Team Friendlies?  In the perfect scenario, sports fans would come in droves to see the team play, nationalism would see an increase and TV ratings would prove to be invaluable.  But, reality dictates a different norm.  Most sports fans who have an interest are more likely checking the sports ticker at the end of the night or the next morning to see what the score was and maybe searching the internet for highlights the next day.

Are American sports fans supposed to embrace the experience or is it more relegated to mainly the core U.S. Soccer fan? Sports fans have to spread the wealth, it is part of their nature.  Giving each of their top tier sports some of their loyalty requires an investment in time.
Already tuning in for the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers is a lot to be expected from many sports fans, especially when MLS is waging such an impressive battle to get some of the sports fan's time, too.  The majority of sports fans are used to only watching Soccer every four years for World Cup.

It's a difficult task to ask them to watch Friendlies, which don't count towards anything other than getting to see the U.S. team spend more time practicing their playmaking and setting their defensive positioning.  Yet, Friendlies are in action this month, next month and a few more times on the calendar leading up to the WC qualifiers, which begin in June.

They're analogous to pre-season football in the NFL.  Diehard fans will watch, others can't afford to give up the precious time.  There's only so much satisfaction a sports fan can get from a Friendly.

They're not real matches, they're exhibitions.  Typically, the aggression can only get to a certain level before leveling off.  Players have their clubs to worry about, which is how they make a living. Generally, players will turn it up a notch or two above Friendly level when games matter, like qualifiers or Gold Cup play.

Even Klinsmann's opener against Mexico was a snooze.  Mexico had just beaten the U.S. for the Gold Cup title, so the friendly's significance was underwhelming, at best.  Watching for differences between the styles of Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann was not evident in any grand way, either.

Raising the profile of a U.S. Men's Soccer National Team Friendly against all the other sports spectating opportunities is a difficult challenge.  One alternative could be to have the Friendly be marketed for TV as a Red/White vs. Blue/White game with the top 30 U.S. players demonstrating their talents divided into two teams, 15 players to each side.

Players may play differently, knowing a spot on the team is on the line.  The competition between players to make the team could become part of the path to the World Cup qualifiers, while at the same time, sports fans get to know the players better.

Playing against all these other countries in Friendlies has become part of the FIFA policy and procedures manual.  There's nothing wrong with them on the surface.  They accomplish for the personnel and coaches what they are supposed to, providing extensive practice in simulated games.

But, teams must always be ready for an UnFriendly result to be blown up in the press.  There's always a possibility to face an angry press and fan base over lost or tied Friendlies.

If the USMNT loses any Friendly, like it did Saturday against Costa Rica, there is very little positive to take from the match, regardless of any spin the coaching staff or media puts out.  A tie in a Friendly is just one more match in which nobody can decide if the balance of the play was good or bad.  A win is the only kind of Friendly which gets good press and good feelings.

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