Tuesday, March 15, 2016


              It may sound odd to say it but the year 1994 may have been the high-water mark for American soccer. The U.S. hosted the World Cup that year and for the first time the American public got to see the rest of the globe’s most-popular sport at its highest level. The response was electric— total and average attendance during the month-long tournament set a record that’s yet to be exceeded despite the fact that the field was expanded to 32 teams from 24 at the next go-round, in 1998.
              Maybe better, the U.S. National Team, which had never qualified for the true World Series over a 32-year span (1954-86), and which fielded a semi-pro lineup and went winless when it finally made it in 1990, did far better than expected, tying Switzerland and upsetting Columbia to qualify for a round-of-16 berth and there losing to eventual-champion Brazil by a respectable score of 1-0. For a sports-proud nation that was just discovering the game of the foot, quick graduation to soccer’s highest level seemed inevitable. Hey, we’re Yanks, and when it comes to sports we can do anything we set our minds to. Right?

              But here we are 22 years later and the expected improvement has not come. Yes, the U.S. did reach the Cup’s quarterfinal round in 2002, and now fields solidly professional national teams, yet we’re still on the outside looking in at the game’s elite. The national team stood 30th in the latest world rankings, just one place ahead of the Cape Verdi Islands (no kidding), and while it’s still favored to make the next World Cup, to be staged in lovely Russia in 2018, that’s not a foregone conclusion. It finished 2015 with five losses and a draw in its last eight games, and didn’t make it to an important regional tournament. A home-and-home World Cup qualifying-round series with Guatemala will be played March 25 and 29, and “should win” has become “must win.” Nothing is being taken for granted any more.

              The problem isn’t that soccer hasn’t gained in popularity on these shores. Youth participation rivals that of our native sports of baseball, basketball and football, a national men’s professional league has taken root after several aborted starts and our women’s teams rule the world.  But while American men now can be found on the rosters of pro leagues around the globe they still aren’t among the best players on the best teams.  In brief, we’ve developed journeymen but not stars, and until that changes we’ll be soccer also-rans.

              The U.S. has produced some very good players but none of first-rank quality. The best, probably, was Landon Donovan, the scoring star of the 2002, ’06 and ’10 World Cup teams. Close behind him were the goalies Brad Friedel and, later, Tim Howard, who just about singlehandedly kept U.S. hopes alive into the playoffs of 2014 Cup play. Donovan, though, never really registered on the world scale, and although Friedel and Howard had solid careers in the English Premier League both were, after all, goalies, so their glow was muted. When your team’s best player is a goalie, you’ve got a problem.

              Our occasional phenoms, kids who showed preternatural skill, similarly haven’t panned out—the names of Freddie Adu and Jonathan Spector come quickest to mind. The Ghanian-born Adu, who came to the U.S. at age eight, was signed as a pro at 14 and moved to Europe at 18, but quickly plateaued there. Spector was signed as a teen by the powerful Manchester United franchise but never made the varsity.

 DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Julian Green and Jordan Morris, all in their early 20s, have showed flashes of brilliance as young national-team members but have yet to develop dependable, well-rounded games. They may or may not be important parts of the current World Cup qualifying process. If they aren’t, that will leave any improvement to such veterans as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, good players but ones that don’t set the sport afire.

One reason the U.S. still lags in soccer, even after some strenuous trying, is the multiplicity of sporting options open to American kids. In most of Europe, Latin America and Africa, where soccer is supreme, any child who shows notable athletic ability is quickly funneled into the sport and heaped with all the attention and praise he needs to prosper. Here, basketball, baseball and football compete for the best, and in recent years that table has slanted so strongly toward basketball that baseball and football complain of talent deficits. What kind of soccer player would Stephen Curry have made? What kind of shortstop, for that matter?

 Another reason is, perhaps perversely, the recent establishment of Major League Soccer as an American sports presence. Offering good salaries and a comfortable playing environment, the league provides employment for most U.S. National Team members, but it’s a second-tier circuit, well behind the top leagues of England, Germany, Spain and Italy, so its players don’t get whatever benefits obtain from competing against their betters. Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. National Team’s German-born coach, is engaged in a running squabble with MLS over his preference that the better American players hone their skills abroad rather than staying home. So far he’s been losing.

My view is that soccer hasn’t been part of the national consciousness long enough to have made a genetic impression on American boys, who are happy enough playing the game as children but turn to the hereditary staples of B, B and F once they reach high school age. Darwin taught us that species change in time, but the span can be long.  The year 1994 was only about a generation away and it may take a couple more before our gene pool can create a Messi or a Ronaldo. As a nation we’re not long on patience, but it may be necessary here. Sorry.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016


              When I attended Roosevelt High School in Chicago (1951-55), Sam Edelcup was the basketball coach.  I wasn’t on his team (not nearly) but he was my gym teacher a couple of semesters, and I wrote sports for the school newspaper, the Rough Rider Review, so we became more than nodding acquaintances.

              He was a very nice man and a good coach—the 1952 Public League championship his team won was the school’s first and, as far as I know, last such title. But any athletic ability he’d possessed as a youth was hard to discern in what I judged to be his middle 50s. At 5-feet-3 or -4 inches tall he was a good foot shorter than some of his players, and his stocky build did not attest to agility.

              Nonetheless, Mr. Edelcup had a standing challenge to his team’s members to try to beat him in a best-of-10 free-throw-shooting contest, and legend had it they rarely did.  His method was to stand on the free-throw line with feet wide apart, grip the ball with a hand on each side, bend his knees slightly and from between his legs flip it basketward underhanded in a soft arc. Not only did the shot almost invariably go in, it usually did so cleanly, without troubling backboard or rim.

              Back in peach-basket days, I’m told, many players shot their charity tosses that way, but even by the 1950s two-handed shots of any kind had all but vanished from the sport, and not even many Roosevelt varsity players followed their coach’s lead. That’s despite the fact that his was a simple, natural motion that’s easily to emulate and usually effective. Rick Barry, a basketball Hall of Famer, learned it from his dad and used it throughout college and a 14-year pro career that he concluded, in 1980, as the best free-throw shooter in league history. His near-90% mark from the line still ranks fourth on the NBA’s all-time list, less than 1% behind that of the leader, Steve Nash.

              Barry was a flinty individualist who didn’t much care about appearances or what others thought. That’s crucial to this discussion. Athletes usually are the most suggestible of people, eager to try any fad or gimmick that might improve their fortunes. Yogurt diets, meditation, old sweat socks and all manner of equipment oddments come under this heading. If a baseball player shaved one side of his head and let the other side grow, and raised his batting average by 20 points, pretty soon you’d see half a league full of half-bald players. But ask them to try something that might make them look a bit awkward or uncool—or worse, feminine—and they’ll balk, even if what they’re doing patently doesn’t work.

              Harking back to the underhand method is pertinent because the NBA now has a problem with the consequences of bad free-throw shooting.  The phenomenon dates from the days when late in games trailing teams intentionally fouled Wilt Chamberlain, who was awful at the line (51% careerwise) in an attempt to gain cheap possessions, but it’s popularly called “Hack a Shaq” because the practice was revived during the more-recent tenure of the almost-equally-inept Shaquille O’Neal (and because “Hack a Wilt” doesn’t rhyme). 

              Today the most-popular targets are the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond and the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, whose FT success rate (Drummond’s 38%, Jordan’s 42%) make fellow big men Shaq and Wilt look like Annie Oakleys.  Fouling them and other poor shooters down the homestretch of games, as opponents are wont to do, can turn the last two minutes of playing time  into a half-hour slog instead of the usual 20 minutes or so. Worse, some teams have taken to employing the tactic earlier, irking fans by slowing things further.

              The practice has reached the point where Adam Silver, the NBA’s commish, is saying he’ll be looking into rules changes to prevent it.  Any change, though, would require two-thirds approval by team owners, and such consensus can be hard to reach.

              A better way out, I think, would be to make the perps in question better free-throw shooters, possibly by going underhanded. A few weeks ago I was spinning my TV dial in search of after-dinner entertainment when I chanced on a University of Louisville basketball game involving one Chinanu Onuako. There he was, on the line in front of everyone, flipping ‘em up the way Sam Edelcup (and Rick Barry) did.

              A computer search revealed Onuako, who stands 6-feet-10 and weighs about 245 pounds, to be a good player on a good college team. A sophomore from Lanham, Maryland, he is employed primarily as a rebounder and shot blocker, but often scores in double figures as well and is rated as a good NBA prospect.
             He’s also a smart young man—an ACC All-Academic teamer as a freshman-- who has reasoned that better FT shooting would make him more valuable to his team and more attractive to the pros. That was what prompted his style change this season even though it has required a thick skin. “My teammates laughed at me when I started,” he told a writer from the ESPN website. Indeed, the writer couldn’t restrain himself from adding some rhetorical jabs, calling the practice “funny looking” and “granny style.” Such is the lot of the nonconformist.
              It would be nice to say that underhanded free-throw shooting has made Onuako into an ace. It hasn’t, but he’s upped his percentage to about 57% from 47% last year, and he’s just getting the hang of it. So let’s hear it for the boy.  I hope he thrives and prospers.