Saturday, January 13, 2007

Cowher aht...Beck's in!!!

The Scribbler came out of 2006 with his annual ass kicker of a cold that is guaranteed to knock him for a loop until at least March, but true to his word, he still adds to this insignificant little blog on an irregular basis if for no other reason than to be hip and cool and say to anyone who inquires that yes, he's a blogger. Of course that and 59 cents will buy a cup of coffee at Eat n' Park. Well on with the show.

First off, the rarest event in NFL history started last week--you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking for a new head coach. This has only happened twice in forty years so forgive the Black and Gold if they haven't quite remembered how to do the process. Bill Cowher confirmed much that the Steeler Nation as well as the media speculated all season long when resigned as the Steelers 15th head coach on Jan 5th. His plan is to take a year off (due to the fact that he still has a year remaining on his contract with the Steelers), reconnect with the family and then come back refreshed and recharged and see what his services will fetch on the open NFL market. It's safe to say that a coach with his record and reputation as a player favorite will fetch a commanding salary from the more generous teams in the NFL. Cowher was one of the lowest paid coaches in the league, and the Rooney's are known for being tight with the purse strings and not overpaying. Many Steeler fans figured that Cowher was on his way out when he announced that he and his wife were building a $2.5 million house in North Carolina and had already moved out of their Fox Chapel digs. Other hints were that the Steelers failed to offer Cowher a contract extension; and that he didn't show the same fire and intensity along the sidelines during the disappointing 8-8 season as he did in previous years.

Reaction among Steelers fans varied from widespread support and thanks for how Coach Cowher was able to put consistently good teams on the field that regularly competed for playoff spots despite the constantly changing rosters due to free agency, to some yinzers who can't let the '70s go by deriding Cowher because he wasn't able to duplicate the feats of prior Steeler coach Chuck Noll who won 4 Super Bowls in the '70s. Of course to compare the '70's to the 21st century is ludicrous. It was a lot easier to keep the same core of winning players on one team back then. Today, with free agency, the rosters and quality of players constantly changes, and it doesn't help that the Steelers have a rep in the league of being hard bargainers and unwilling to overpay. The Steelers lost more quality players due to free agency than any other team many years, but they were still able to compete for and in the playoffs because Cowher and his staff had the ability to draw the best out of marginal talent, and also because the Steelers have always been one of the best teams at building through the draft and not heavily relying on incoming free agents. Cowher wasn't the best coach in the league. He was outcoached in the playoffs more than a few times by guys like Bill Belicheck of the Patriots and Mike Shanahan of the Broncos. Until Super Bowl XL, he was roundly criticized as a coach who couldn't win the big games. His tendency to be overly loyal to certain veterans even when they were no longer effective burned him more than a few times. And his assistant coaches will tell you that the man could a bitch to work for. But the players would walk through fire for the man, He is a local boy made good, which is always a plus with Steeler fans and his antic on the sidelines were the stuff of legend. Bill Cowher owes the Steelers and their fans nothing. He paid that debt on February 5th, 2006 in Detroit when he presented the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney. Coach Cowher deserves to ease back, enjoy his family, start on the mile long honey-do list his wife Kaye started and then see how much he can get on the market in a year. There are any number of teams that will pay Cowher twice what he got from the Steelers. Good luck Coach Cowher, and thanks for a helluva ride.

In other sports news, Former Manchester United, Real Madrid, and England soccer star David Beckham will be bringing his trademark banana kicks, his marketing empire and his wife Victoria better known as "Posh Spice" of the annoying "band" the Spice Girls to the United States to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. Being a soccer head and a former player ( a very bad one at that), I looked at this development with more than a passing interest. I remember about 30 years ago, another US based pro soccer league was seeking to gain exposure by bringing in a great player to one of its big market squads. Back then the North American Soccer League convinced the immortal Pele of Brazil to sign with the New York Cosmos. While the great one was in the twilight of his incredible career, he still had enough gas in the tank to show American audiences why he was the greatest player in soccer history. The NASL then went after and signed other Euro players that were past it in their own country, but were still better than the level of player in the USA at that time.

This had the effect of increasing the pipeline of promising American talent coming out the big-time soccer colleges, but that talent ended up moldering on NASL benches while the league tweaked its rules to allow foreign players with green cards to count against the rule that required two North American players to be on the field at all times. Great players like Georgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, and George Best came over to the US to play for huge salaries, but after Pele retired in a farewell game pitting his New York Cosmos against the team where he embarkeed on his career, Santos of Brazil which still holds a record as one of the largest crowds to see a soccer match in the US as well as a Giants Stadium attendance record, the league could no longer hold the attention of the American public and the over exposure to European has beens alienated the fans even more and within 5 years the NASL was history.

Some might think that the arrival of David Beckham to LA may cause the same effect. I don't know. Soccer has always had an uphill time it gaining acceptance in the USA. There are just too many ingrained sports to compete with in this country for soccer to make more than a niche foothold. Most other countries in the world, soccer is the king, and other sports like basketball and hockey are a close second. But in the US, soccer has to go up against baseball, football, basketball, hockey, stock car racing, all of whom have much bigger fan bases than soccer in the USA. The sport has made inroads towards acceptability. More kids are playing soccer at the youth level than baseball or football. The success of the USA's hosting of the 1994 World Cup brought about the creation of the MLS and the exposing of top US talent to the great European in such leagues as the British Premier League. The USA's success in the 2002 World Cup brought in a new wave of fans that have started to follow the team's progress in person as well as in the media. The poor performance of the USA squad in the '06 World Cup may have hindered the progress of the sport in the US. But I think that soccer in this country is as popular as it has ever been.

Is the arrival of David Beckham to the US enough to push the game over the top and into the limelight on a regular basis? Beckham made no secret that he liked the States and was interested in coming there. He played in the US with Real Madrid during international games against MLS and Euro sides, established soccer academies in the States and he'll fit right in with the Hollywood set in LA. Whether Man U, Real Madrid, or LA Galaxy, his jersies will fly off the shelves. He has marketing deals with Adidas, and other top athletic gear manufacturers that will pay him royally. He will provide the MLS with instant credibility. Heretofore, if you went to soccer forums on the Internet and asked the locals what they thought about the MLS, you'd probably be either ridiculed mercilessly, or cussed out using all sorts of vile Euro epithets. Most soccer fans outside of the US have little use for the MLS. They would say that the MLS is equivalent of a Second or Third Division League in their country, and for the most part, they'd be right. A couple years ago it took an MLS All-Star team to beat a middle of the road Premier League team. Put an MLS squad in the Premier League or Serie A or the Bundesliga, and they'd be at the bottom of the table most of the season. While the MLS provides a great opportunity for American players to learn their craft, those players have to go to play in European leagues to finish their soccer education. This is one of the reasons that our World Cup roster is mostly made up of American players playing on Euro sides. Bur now with Beckham playing in the States, there is a good chance that other Euro stars who are looking to extend their careers a few years may come to the MLS. But the MLS needs to learn from what happened in the NASL. They can't get so star-blind that they forget that they are the top American soccer league and that they must cultivate American talent in order to survive. Beckham is not at the top of his game anymore, but he's still better than most of the players in the MLS. His arrival may stimulate those players to improve their game and therefore improve the quality of the league. He will improve attendance throughout the league. There will be sellouts at nearly every Galaxy home game. There will be tons of buzz amongst the soccer heads about DB's every move, and if he's successful off the bat, that buzz will grow louder. But I don't see the regular sports media getting too hyped about it. The mainstream sports media either tries to ignore soccer or treats it like the Olympics in that they will follow the USA in World Cup competition as long as the team is successful, but will drop it like a hot potato once the season's over or they are eliminated from competition. Those cities that have MLS teams get coverage from the local media, but the league as a whole gets niche coverage. I think its a great thing to have Becks come to the USA, The MLS will gain by him being here. But they need to play this hand right and remember their core mission which is to groom future American stars and not to provide over the hill Euro players with one last paycheck.

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