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The Big Pitcher – Taking the Longer View of MLS, the National Teams, and American Soccer

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

The most frustrating moments in sports are the ones that fail to live up to the narrative we’ve envisioned for them.

This is different that the devastation of a crucial or undeserved loss. It’s the last-second shot rolling out of the rim, the field goal wide right, the team coming together in the second half only to blow it in the last week of the season. These storylines are how we process sports; when they’re thwarted the reaction is similar to a failed plot twist or a discordant note. And for that reason it’s a particular kind of disappointing for American soccerfolk that the U.S. men’s team isn’t living up to its destiny as the 1952 Hickory High School boys basketball team

The expectation was that it would all suddenly make sense, that the first year and a half before qualifying got serious were Klinsmann’s Norman Dale moment, taking some early hits in order to lay down the foundations that would lead to future growth. The pupal constrictions of the team’s post-Bradley the Elder metamorphosis — four-passes-before-you-shoot and Jermaine Jones and whatnot — would after a time fall away, preferably via spectacular montage. All the lessons that had been learned during that time would suddenly become apparent; once we finished moulting, we’d have Attacking Soccer: unique and beautiful and capable of upsetting South Bend High in the state finals.

Our own Jimmy Chitwood?

Instead, we’re getting to the point where our own personal Jimmy Chitwood is going to have to come back and tell the supporters at American Outlaws town meeting that he doesn’t know if it’ll make any change but he figures it’s time for him to start playing ball to convince us that we have any hope.

This is in all likelihood (hopefully) a temporary despair. With so few actual markers with which to gauge progress, the national team narrative feels like one of big swings. We’re the best we’ve ever been…ohh God, we’re not going to qualify. Deviations in form become breakthroughs and regressions. Danny Williams goes from Timbuk3 to Sex Pistols in a cap and a half. Jermaine Jones gets body swapped with Andrea Pirlo sometime over the winter break.

Those big gaps, and the big changes that occur within them, can be murder on the timeline of fandom, making every interval feel as though more time has elapsed than actually has. Ask anyone who covers the team how many variations of the “When will Johnny Footballer Be Ready to Start for the USMNT?” question he or she gets over the course of a typical week. (“I know he’s 18 now, but by the time Brazil gets here he’ll be 19.25! He should be an impact sub at least by then!”)

Because of its global reach, soccer has the largest and most sophisticated narrative of any sport on the planet. There’s the global ur-narrative — Lionel Messi Lionel Messi Lionel Messi African Cup o-MATCH FIXING! — built on top of a host of interconnected national and regional narratives that are themselves built on top of a host of smaller narratives: men’s and women’s national teams, lower divisions and young up-and-comers, cup competitions and derby rivalries, on the field, off the field, in the locker room and in the nightclubs, parking garages and personal fireworks testing facilities of some of the sport’s luminaries. At the center is the the league, the sports world’s storyline-generating World Tree.

To follow sports today is to be keep up with some combination of all of these narratives, harvesting the stories we think we’d enjoy and leaving others to wither and die. We pluck particular strings, follow certain conduits, construct a shelter that gives us our own frame of reference for viewing sports by blocking out the sheer magnitude of the narrative that we’ve decided we don’t care about.

It can be overwhelming, and in fact we’re so used to it being overwhelming that the relative paucity of new national team news has created those now-familiar overreactions to every new result and performance and led to the formation of a cottage industry in tracking the progress of Americans playing overseas. But no matter how many minutes Brian Sciaretta tells me Fabian Johnson is playing for Hoffenheim, I can’t help but tie it back to the question: What has he done for U.S. lately? 

So it’s kind of a relief as an American soccerperson to once again have the familiar rhythms of the league-in-progress to look forward to, a statistically-significant sample size on which to eventually base the conclusions we’re going leap to after the first game (though why wait that long when there have been so many preseason opportunities). This year’s offseason has been perhaps the busiest in the league's history; now we get to enjoy the fruits of those labors. Some of the storylines we put our hopes in will thwart our expectations, but more will quickly pop up to take their place. What we’ll be talking about at the end of the season will be something we can’t even envision today.   

Unless Jimmy comes back. Then we’ll have a pretty good idea.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for “The Other 87 Minutes”, their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of “the Tuesday 10” or the “Tuesday XI”. While attending the Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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