Even if you are a die-hard soccer fan who doesn’t spend time watching other sports, there is a good chance you heard about NFL player Richard Sherman’s post-game interview rant last weekend. Sherman’s scream-a-thon sparked both outrage and praise, but plenty of chatter, and while it it earned him plenty of criticism, it also showered him with plenty of attention.
So what does this have to do with soccer exactly? Nothing directly, but watching Sherman parlay his “best trash talker in the NFL” persona into commercials for running shoes and headphones is enough to make any soccer fan realize just how few outspoken and marketable personalities there are in American soccer.
We don’t need a wave of trash-talking poor sports showing up opponents and screaming into television cameras to help Major League Soccer and the sport in general in the U.S., but we can definitely use a few more players with personality and marketability, and even a few marketable bad guys.
Yes, there are American soccer players who you will find on commercials occasionally, like U.S. national team stars Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, but in terms of Americans players who combine outgoing and truly marketable personalities with ability, players who teams and leagues can truly promote, there aren’t many.
Quick, think about which American player you would consider to have the biggest personality in the game? Herculez Gomez is someone who comes to mind with his social media savvy, and Howard is gaining marketability in his mid-30s as he combines stellar form with a polished persona made for television.
Beyond that though? You have a hard time finding candidates that stand out immediately.
“We love to talk about giving players the ability to express themselves on the soccer field - that should continue off the field,” Alexi Lalas told Goal USA. “I don’t like shrinking violets, I like big personalities and big egos.
“Our country is still emerging (in soccer) so it doesn’t lend itself to having those personalities.”
Consider one measure of social visibility in sports: the Sports Illustrated 100, which rates the top 100 Twitter accounts in sports. In the three years since SI started doing the Twitter 100, there have been exactly two American soccer players chosen: Stuart Holden and Megan Rapinoe in 2011. No MLS player has ever made the list. Mario Balotelli was the lone soccer player chosen in 2013.
No, you don’t have to be as brash and outspoken as Richard Sherman, but other sports benefit from the bravado of natural showmen and charm of natural-born pitchmen. Whether you talk Chael Sonnen in the UFC, or Peyton Manning in the NFL, or Floyd Mayweather in boxing, sports benefit from the attention gained by those special types of athletes who know how to not only sell themselves, but their sports as well. And whether you love them, or hate them, you find yourself wanting to watch them.
You might say soccer doesn’t need that, or doesn’t produce those types of characters, but that would ignore the likes of George Best, Giorgio Chinaglia, Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona - all amazing players, but also larger-than-life personalities on and off the field.
Those types of personalities aren’t exclusive to the rest of the world. We have seen them in American soccer before, with Lalas and Eric Wynalda, two figures who were not only pioneers, but also naturals for the spotlight.
“If they can’t kick the ball it doesn’t matter what they look like or what they say, but if they have that quality and personality, that’s the perfect combination and the type of player I want to see play,” Lalas said. “This wasn’t just something I was winging. I knew what I was doing. That doesn’t diminish it. You have to be comfortable in who you are.”
Lalas laments the lack of such showmanship in American soccer, but as he points out, his heyday was a different time in American soccer.
“It was very much the wild west when we were coming up so it gave us more freedom, but it’d be sad if that was lost as the sport evolved here,” Lalas said. “I don’t care what the sport is, I love those athletes who are different and interesting to talk to."
Whether it’s someone like the young and stylish DeAndre Yedlin, or brash and outspoken Eddie Johnson, or the sharp-as-a-knife Clint Irwin, American soccer needs more players who give fans a reason to care on and off the field. MLS can certainly use a boost in personality to help increase flat TV ratings and give the league some flavor it lacks.
Of course the league can use better talent, but finding marketable American players who light up in front of a camera, and aren’t shy about expressing themselves on and off the field would do wonders for the sport in this country.
No, American soccer doesn’t need someone quite like Richard Sherman, but it does need some players who can seize a moment and get people interested. With the World Cup looming, there will be plenty of opportunity to be seen and make a name, both on and off the field. The question now is which players are ready to step up and scream into the camera?
UNION, TIMBERS TURN IN STELLAR MLS DRAFTS
After Thursday’s first day of the MLS Draft, the Philadelphia Union had already walked away with the strongest haul of talent in the league. What the Union proceeded to do on the draft’s second day, on Tuesday, might have left Philly with the best collection of college talent ever assembled in a single draft.
The Union had the most total picks in the draft’s four rounds, and found impressive value from an eight-player haul that could easily see more than half of the draft picks make the team’s final roster.
Among the Union’s day-two haul were central defender Richie Marquez, a tall and quick Division III standout who impressed scouts at the MLS Combine, and a fourth-round bargain in Luca Gimenez, who was an All-ACC midfielder at Wake Forest before a poor Combine hurt his stock.
Philly also snagged Aodhan Quinn with the No. 52 overall pick after teams had let Quinn slide down the board amid word he was trialing in England. Throw in attacking midfield prospect Alex Sweetin from Saint Louis University, and a day-one haul that featured star goalkeeper Andre Blake, impressive midfielder Pedro Riibeiro and quality central defender Kevin Cope, and John Hackworth and his staff have to be feeling really good about its new collection of young talent.
What other teams made the most of the draft’s second day? The Portland Timbers kicked the day off by taking versatile UConn midfielder George Fochive, but it was the team’s fourth-round steals in UCLA forward Victor Chavez and Indiana left winger Nikita Kotlov that could ultimately help the Timbers wind up with the best draft of the bunch.
MATHIS SET TO JOIN FIRE
During the peak of his career, Clint Mathis was known as a free-spirited southern boy who will go down as one of the best attacking players American fans ever saw. He is ready to return to MLS, where his playing career began, only now as an assistant coach.
Sources tell Goal USA that the Chicago Fire will hire Mathis as the newest member of Frank Yallop’s coaching staff. The staff now includes former Chicago standout defender and RSL assistant C.J. Brown and returning Fire goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde.