Culture

Man in the arena: Soccer analysis in America

Photo: Earl Gardner

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  –Teddy Roosevelt

There was a time when American sportswriters were nothing but mythmakers and sycophants, promotional poets worshiping at the altar of athletic greatness.

The sports media glossed over the seamier sides of sports and veered clear of critique. Mickey Mantle’s legendary alcoholism never made the papers during his career. No columnist called out the American football coach for blitzing the Mike and Will linebackers on 3rd and long and isolating both his corners in man-to-man coverage when they could have sat back comfortably in a Cover 2. Newshounds didn’t rip the manager for that failed, no-out double steal when a sacrifice bunt would have sufficed. They certainly didn’t question the decision to start one player over another or play a 4-4-2 instead of an alternative.

That world is gone, of course. Jim Bouton ripped the facade off the nation’s most popular sport with his 1970 classic, Ball Four. Watergate followed two years later, and American journalism changed dramatically. There were no unassailable idols anymore. Curt Flood ushered in the free agency era, indirectly created the culture of multimillionaire athletes and coaches, and removed the last barrier to the professional athlete’s status as untouchable.

Today, we have a sports media environment in which anything about the professional athlete or coach is fair game. Anytime you consider holding back on critique, you recall that these are very wealthy sportsmen. If they can make a million bucks, they can take some hits in the media.

Then there is the outlying case of American soccer, where independent critical analysis resides in a netherworld of sorts and athletes reside firmly in the middle class.

The difference in the critic

Major League Soccer thrives outside the realm of expansive mainstream media coverage devoted to the old big four major leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL). Professional media outlets don’t dedicate nearly the number of paid journalists to covering MLS. Instead, you must get much of your coverage from the league web site, where the content can be quite good but editorial independence is far from complete.

Where is the independent, in-depth, daily coverage that you get for every other sport?

There are a few independent sites, like The Philly Soccer Page, where it’s a labor of love for the contributors rather than a paid gig.

That means writers come from a different background. Some have journalism backgrounds. All have soccer backgrounds, of course. For example, The Philly Soccer Page was started by athletes playing in Philadelphia’s biggest adult soccer league. We were (and remain) athletes and coaches, organizers and fans. We have been in Teddy Roosevelt’s arena in soccer or other sports. We weren’t the kid who got cut from the high school baseball team but obsessed over the sport so much that he based his entire professional career on his fandom. We had perspective. Maybe we didn’t go pro, but we knew the arena.

So we live the arena in other aspects. One becomes an architect. The other aspires to rock stardom. One makes it as a professional photographer. Another becomes an investigator. Pennsylvania native Bobby Warshaw wrote about wondering if accountants or MLSsoccer.com’s Simon Borg had legions of observers watching them make their mistakes. Musicians do. Investigative reporters do. If you thought the abuse was bad after a late game penalty, consider the career damage from getting a major newspaper article wrong or if a floor collapses on a building you designed. The arena may have changed, but it remains the arena.

It’s from this perspective that one understands the roles of fans and observers. Without them, the arena hosts an isolated event, a sporting match nobody sees. If not for the arena’s observers and customers, life in the arena can never become a profession. It becomes just a pastime. It’s pickup soccer in the park.

So there’s a respect for the role of the objective observer, particularly when you understand fans’ demand for someone to fill the role. We move from the arena into the stands, just for a bit, to observe, critically analyze, add context, and explain as best we can to other observers. You recognize your limitations, but you fill the gaps the best you can. Alejandro Moreno, Adam Cann or Matt Doyle may be capable of the best kind of tactical analysis, while others focus on the business of sports or simply committing journalism.

But you never forget what it’s like to be the man in the arena, particularly because of how the man and the arena differ from their counterparts in other major American sports and European soccer.

The difference in the man in the arena

Aaron Wheeler makes $48,825 a year. Ray Gaddis makes $52,313. Leo Fernandes makes $48,500. These recognizable professional athletes have salaries that probably require them to share their apartment with a roommate in order to pay the rent. If they want to raise families, their spouses will work just like everyone else’s, and they’ll deal with high daycare costs or require help from extended families.

They are not the millionaires we grew up watching in the NFL and Major League Baseball. They are, to a degree, our peers, save that they’re still pursuing the dream of professional sports. Have they accomplished it? Sure. But one day it ends, and they may realize they haven’t built any sort of long-lasting career. Maybe one of them will make it big like Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley and earn the multi-million-dollar contract that allows them to live off their soccer earnings for the rest of their lives.

But most won’t. So they’ll keep working.

There is a certain consideration for this position as an observer.* You never fall into the pre-Ball Four era of sportswriting, but you maintain a certain working class respect for the other, an appreciation of the dignity of playing sports for sports’ sake. Would most of you trade your current job for theirs? Perhaps. But then you consider what comes with it. Maybe you remember Danny Califf and his family getting jerked around the continent and separated by three consecutive dysfunctional franchises, until he finally decided his lifelong passion wasn’t worth hurting his family. You think about the players bouncing around the minor leagues and living off fast food, and you realize they’re in the same or lower economic class as you.

These are the choices to make.

So when you watch the man in this arena and engage in the kind of critical analysis that — let’s be honest — helps build the sport and maintain fan interest between games, you keep this in mind. How do you assess the performance without destroying the player who simply can’t afford and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed? How do you treat the player with the fairness that you would want for yourself?

That’s how you develop your code for commentary and analysis. It comes about organically. You realize over time that you won’t demolish a guy for being outplayed the same way you will when he cheats or doesn’t try hard. It’s why Carlos Ruiz was hated and Sebastien Le Toux loved, why Philadelphia Union fans get annoyed every time Antoine Hoppenot dives, why Zac MacMath’s resilience is so appreciated now, and why Peter Nowak will never be forgiven.

You always keep in mind what it’s like to be the man in the arena. You treat him how you would want to be treated.

(Author’s note: Click here for the follow-up to this column.)

31 Comments

  1. Awesome. Spot on. It’s ok to comment on a person’s performance and it can be done without judging or degrading the person. Imagine you are someone else commenting on your or your kid’s play in a game when you write.

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      R3er, i have to know who you are related to. Don’t take this as malicious, because it is not. You have been a STAUNCH supporter of every single thing this team or management group does and now you ask the general readership to refrain from judging players by imagining that it is our own children playing?

      To echo the Duke down below, the fans pay their salary. Hence, the players could be seen as employees of the fans and deserve to be critiqued when performance is subpar.

      I WILL always critique players, regardless of what they get paid because that is part of their job. I never say “such and such is an idiot” or “such and such is stupid” etc. But I will say that Caroll has no vision, Wheeler has no distribution skills, Macmath is playing out of his mind right now, Noguiera is phenomenal in possesion, Hackworth is overmatched etc. etc.

      If and when my children are paid to play the game then they will receive the same treatment!

      • +1 , One of the ABSOLUTE BEST THINGS you can teach your child is how to take criticism.

      • And how to give Constructive Critisism.

      • and how to stand up for themselves in the face of criticism, fair or otherwise.

      • George H says:

        And how to clean and gut a fish.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Ha!

      • John Ling says:

        You touched on it, Dan, but I think it’s worth expanding. *How* you criticize is important. “Aaron Wheeler needs to do a better job fighting through that pick so he can stay with Marshall on the winner,” is a fine criticism. “Aaron Wheeler is a [email protected]#%$ idiot who couldn’t mark my 10 year old,” is a fine example of how not to criticize somebody.
        .
        Way too often, it goes from criticism to personal. (And at it’s absolutely worst, it calls into question somebody’s sexual preference, gender status, etc; I’ve never seen it here at PSP (and I’m quite sure it wouldn’t be tolerated), but sadly, such tripe is common elsewhere.) Dan’s article is pretty spot on, but not because of the salaries made (or not made, I guess) by the players. No, Dan is spot on because the players are real, living, breathing human beings. Getting personal is unnecessary when it comes to saying a player had a poor game, or the manager is making poor decisions. Focus on the play, and leave the insults and personal stuff out, and you’ll almost surely stay on the “right” side of the line.

      • I am not related to anyone with the club. I support the club but not blindly, as a careful reading of my comments would yield. Paying for tickets, which I do, does not give me the right to be abusive. Stated differently, one can be comment on and be critical of an Acme’s store practices without abusing the manager or check out person personally. The critiques you sight are fine – I am not saying you cannot comment on someone’s performance. What does seem important, however, is that when you question a player’s or coaches intentions or motivations, you are essentially calling them unprofessional because the assumption is they are trying hard to win (or if behind with a short time to go, equalize). Unless and until we see an obvious intentional lack of effort or neglect of responsibility, those should not be questioned. A good team or club is honest and respectful, not just honest. I believe calling someone an idiot or a buffoon, or implying as much, crosses the line. Saying Hackworth got a substitution wrong doesn’t, but that’s low hanging fruit. Who do you blame more for Liverpool’s collapse vs. Palace – the players or Rodgers? The players, I believe, are ultimately responsible and at the professional level experienced enough to know “we shouldn’t let ourselves get countered with ten minutes to go.” You could also reasonably say that Rodgers got his subs wrong, but even the ones he put on should have done the job. And in my experience, your kids will not have to be paid professionally to be treated badly by others’ “critiques”. I don’t see how the players getting paid changes the right course of action for all of us.

      • +1

  2. Let a single player never forget that it’s the fans who pay his/her bills. No fans = no money. Fans can critique a celebrity or pro athlete because the job of the entertainer is to make their self a purchasable entity. And if the fan doesn’t like what they are purchasing, they offer an explanation of what they would like better. If this is “too harsh” for the product, then they will stop being consumed.

  3. Thanks for this exhortation toward thoughtfulness and consideration. I need it.

  4. Yo Earl, that’s easily one of the top 5 photos of PPL I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t even have the ole’ Commodore in it. Stunning.

  5. John Osborn says:

    Anyone know if MLS players have to pay their own health insurance? When they get injured and need surgery, do they have to pick up the tab?

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that if they are injured as part of their jobs (game or practice) the team picks up the bill.

  6. The other key difference between soccer in america and the “big four” (used loosely), is that there’s a unique connection between fans and players. Multi-million dollar stars in basketball or baseball feel distant. They’re living in a different world than most of us. With MLS, there’s a sense that we’re part of something bigger…not just fans paying admission. Players acknowledge fans week in and week out. It’s not unusual to attend special events like stadium tours or jersey unveilings, and interact with players. Ray Gaddis dropping in at Stoney’s for Eric Shertz’ wake? Does that happen in any of the other major sports? These players just seem more real, more approachable, and more like you and I. There’s a family vibe that seems unique to soccer that influences how we analyze and critique.

    • Probably more of an extension of “the man in the arena” than an additional difference, but the rest of it still holds.

  7. The Chopper says:

    MLS does hold the distinction of one of the few top tier American Sports where the majority of the players may earn less,than the majority of the fans. We often forget that. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. This is a lovely article and I feel speaks to us to choose carefully how we speak of those in the arena. I don’t see it written in a way that says do not judge or condemn for game playing choices, I see it written in a way that says do not be personal when considering those doing something we all wish we probably could do- live a professional dream of soccer/football. In today’s society we have a much deeper sense of entitlement to be hurtful in our commentary or fandom, for whatever reason… social media ease, blogs, escalating cost to attend games…..
    .
    Having said that, while we may be a bit rough on certain players they are athletes being paid to play the game and could always chose to do otherwise. Therefore they are certainly open to being criticized.
    .
    The VERY good news is that in this country, Sheanon Williams doesn’t have to run to the sidelines to eat a thrown banana in order to diffuse, enlighten or bring humor to his deep mistreatment.

  9. Dan – wonderful piece. I had a draft in the works along the same lines, but it would have paled in comparison. I started thinking about this topic when a previous comment challenged the collective “us” for the validity of our critique.
    .
    I definitely echo the comments above about the best way to be a fan-critic as far as describing specifics about what you didn’t like (“Cruz needs to improve his first touch”) instead of baseless attacks (“Cruz isn’t a professional soccer player”). If we consider ourselves fans and want to see the team do well, we should remember that soccer is a game of confidence, and young players especially are vulnerable to hearing constant criticism without any praise.
    .
    That being said, I hope we all can continue what I consider to be some of the best soccer analysis and criticism I’ve read anywhere. PSP has created a nice little soccer community, and the discussion about games, tactics and players adds a lot to the enjoyment of the game for all of us.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Actually, I did not intend for this piece to extend to what fans say. What fans say is up to the fans. First Amendment, all that jazz. If you pay to watch the team, you can say what you want. (I’m from a family of New Yorkers. I know how to call a non-hustler a “bum.”)

      This is just for me and what I think, in terms of how I approach critical analysis of players. And yes, it probably informs an overarching philosophical approach at PSP, but even then, not everyone at PSP subscribes to it.

      There’s also a part 2 to this column, if I get the time, and it has nothing to do with part 1 except that part 1 is the precursor.

      Basically, Bobby Warshaw’s column on MLSsoccer.com got me thinking about this sometime last week, and Ed and I talked about it recently. Once I wrote a few lines, I realized I had a little essay.

      • Yeah, I definitely got that. I just thought the same approach extends nicely to fans, especially given the unique circumstances of the majority of MLS players.

  10. Fan – Short for “Fanatic.” Noun – a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause.
    .
    It’s inherent in the nature of a fan that their opinion does not extend beyond their personal view.

  11. First let me say that I have seriously taken this article as food for thought. I have been one who has resorted to saying things about John Hackworth that I wish I hadn’t. Most recently I referred to him as a “bottom feeding buffoon.” That was so uncalled for and not who I am. I was caught up in the moment which is no excuse. NONE! I don’t agree with the tactics or coaching practices of John Hacworth in any way,shape or form. I still don’t think he is a professional manager enough or capable enough to deal with skilled talented players. I get the feeling that he doesn’t feel that he has the control and feels threatend by skilled knowledgeable players who may challenge him. I think he should be replaced. John Hackworth is a great guy and wonderful judge of talent but I think he’s in over his head.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Lashing out at this managerial display is completely forgivable. We have all been caught up in critical analysis. This is a frustrating club.

  12. Nicely done, Dan. I will note that the lack of civility that you address is aided by several other factors. First, the “politics of personal destruction” is a catchphrase that we hear, but is a real issue when we see what people are writing about many of the issues that are addressed on public websites like this. Second, and as you can see from the name that I use, we are relatively anonymous when we comment. That anonymity tends to free us to be more caustic than we otherwise would be when commenting. I am sure that I have said things when writing my comments that I would have phrased more gently if I were speaking to the player. I appreciate the way that most of the other commentators here do behave civilly, and I would likely not be back if they were writing as I see people writing on Philly.com, for example. Thanks for providing this forum. It is really appreciated that I am able to find a place to write about my lifelong obsession with soccer, read from similar fans and/or long since overdue for retirement players and/or coaches and refs. I have been all of those things, and the Union has provided me with the ability to have a local focus for my attention. If they would play a ninety minute game and put away a win, I would be very happy. And you provide me with a place to write about what I have seen them do, whether live at that beautiful stadium or on TV when I can’t get there. Mike Schmidt talked about Philadelphia as the place where you have the ability to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day. I hope that the comments here are constructive, rather than so agonizing as all of that.

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