Why the next month is the best time to be introduced to the beautiful game
I know what you’re going to say. It’s too boring. Nobody scores. America sucks. We get it, you don’t like soccer. It’s not your fault. Anti-soccer sentiment has perpetuated in America because a) we didn’t invent it, like all of our other major sports, and b) our international team’s status doesn’t reflect the whole “we’re #1” mantra that’s bashed into our skulls as soon as we’re old enough to say the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not your fault. But, considering that a certain orange bag of douche is within earshot of the presidency, now might not be a bad time to look at your options abroad, and come in with some appreciation for the world’s game. Again, it’s not your fault. But, if you still think soccer isn’t worth your time, I’m here to tell you why you’re wrong, or at least, why the next few weeks is the best time you’ve ever had to give soccer a chance.
THE SUMMERTIME BLUES
Americans are all too familiar with that empty time frame of mid-June to mid-July in the world of sports. The NBA and NHL playoffs will be over within a week’s time, and NFL training camps don’t start for at least another six weeks. So, you’re either stuck twiddling your thumbs for a month or hoping steroids make their way back into baseball so someone can put runs on the board (not likely as long as Kershaw and Arrieta can throw a 12-6 curveball).
This summer, however, you’re in luck. The two biggest soccer tournaments not named “World Cup” are being played simultaneously. In the US, Copa America Centenario is taking a tour across this great nation, bringing the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Hulk, Chicharito, and Christian Pulisic from sea to shining sea (more on that last guy later). Across the pond, France are hosting the new and improved 2016 edition of the European Championships. Most importantly, every match of either tournament is being broadcast stateside, with ESPN taking on the Euros (which air in the mornings and early afternoon) and FOX Sports taking on Copa America (which air in the late afternoon and evenings). Yet, each tournament is distinct in their merits and style of play.
IT’S NOT BORING
Remember when Steve Spurrier brought the Wildcat offense to college football and everyone shit their collective pants for a few weeks? It was because someone had taken elements of the game that had always been there and reshaped them into an unprecedented modern concept. The same thing happened in the early 2010s when Jurgen Klopp, then-manager of Borussia Dortmund, introduced his Gegenpressing style of soccer to his Bundesliga side. The so-called “heavy metal” game plan featured extremely high pressure defense and counterattacking not seen in the game since the Dutch international team of the 1980s.
Although Klopp will be hard at work assembling his Liverpool side for the 2016-17 campaign, a multitude of playing styles will be on display this summer, both here in the US and abroad. For one, American manager Jurgen Klinsmann is looking to solidify his 4-3-3 formation with a young, talented back line, and veteran midfielders. And they’re certainly capable of greatness.
Italy’s manager Antonio Conte (pictured above) turned Serie A on its head when he coached Juventus a few years ago, opting to play with three center backs instead of the traditional back four. In France, Conte will be reunited with the back trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci in what represents the toughest defense in the tournament.
Two-time defending European champions Spain have their own brand of soccer, known as tiki-taka. Spanish titans such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi perfected this method of play, and captured three major trophies using it. While Xavi is retired, Iniesta brings immense experience to a veteran side that should not be written off.
Finally, Belgium deliver a front six who will run the quickest and most skilled counter attack in the tournament. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku have all shined in the Premier League in recent years, and they’ll be aided by Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, and Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco. This is matched in the back with a slow but very experienced back line, featuring the pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who helped Tottenham in this year’s thrilling Premier League title race.
THIS IS THE BEST TIME TO BE INTRODUCED TO THE GAME OF SOCCER SINCE BILL CLINTON WAS PRESIDENT.
Copa America is traditionally held between South American countries, and a couple of nations they want to invite for shits and giggles (guest nations have never won). What makes this year special is not only that it is the one hundred year anniversary of the first Copa, but also because it is being held in the US. That means that the highest caliber of soccer since the 1994 World Cup will be on display in stadiums across the country. And such a high caliber doesn’t come without a bit of drama.
For one, the greatest player in the history of the sport, Lionel Messi, is captaining his Argentina side on US soil. And while Messi has won every trophy imaginable multiple times for FC Barcelona, he has yet to win a major trophy while playing for his country. Messi is in the prime of his career at 28 years old, but when he takes the field in the next World Cup in Russia, he’ll be in his thirties. Some say that this is his last opportunity to win a piece of hardware with Argentina while in his prime, and I happen to agree. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Argentina playing in the final against another team familiar with success in the US—Mexico.
El Tri, the nickname of the Mexican national team, are on a twenty-one game unbeaten run following their victory against Jamaica on Thursday night. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez leads his side in what has been their home away from home for decades. Time and time again, Mexico has found themselves the victors while playing in the US, most recently in October versus the Yanks themselves in a 3-2 victory that sent El Tri through to the 2017 Confederations Cup. However, it’s the Americans that perhaps represent the most compelling storyline of Copa America Centenario.
The US Men’s National Team is at a crossroads. They face a changing of the guard, with old vets such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard at the end of their international careers, and young stars such as Bobby Wood, DeAndre Yedlin, and 17 year-old Christian Pulisic taking the helm. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann must balance the experience of his veterans with the vigor of his youngsters, all while playing host to the biggest soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere.
LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FOOTBALL(ITÉ)
On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe kicks off their continental soccer tournament today, when host nation France takes on Romania at the Stade de France, outside Paris. The European Championship is a massive international tournament, and it’s gotten a makeover. The field has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, meaning there’s an extra round of knockout play, and a wide range of ability on display.
France come into the tournament as slight favorites, a team represented by such breakout stars as Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet, and Antoine Griezmann. While injuries and age bring France’s defensive ability into question, their front six will likely put up enough goals that any other offensive threat will be neutralized.
World Cup winner Germany are looking to keep up their international glory, though they haven’t been playing well since their triumph in Brazil. Die Mannschaft lost two of their last four matches, including a 3-2 home loss to England which saw England and Leicester City phenom Jamie Vardy net a back heel goal against world #1 goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
England come into Euro 2016 reinvigorated after a perfect qualification round while playing with the youngest team in the tournament. Young stars like Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Raheem Sterling join veterans Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart in what many consider to be the best English squad assembled in a decade.
Portugal look to make a statement after being knocked out of the World Cup by the US two years ago. They are led by Cristiano Ronaldo, the three-time Ballon D’Or winner who at 31 years old, is almost out of the prime of his career.
Finally, a dark horse which has been overlooked by some is Croatia. They’re led by arguably the most talented midfield in the tournament. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic will control the central midfield, with the likes of Inter’s Ivan Perisic providing width on the wing. All in all, this is a European tournament which will not be bereft of excitement.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” – LINKIN PARK
If you made it to the end of this article and still don’t want to watch soccer, I admire your determination. You’ve earned that right. But to the rest of you, enjoy these next few weeks. As Americans, we won’t have this fine a taste of the beautiful game for many years to come. Drink it in while you can.