Tuesday night's United States men's soccer team friendly against the Republic of Azerbaijan took place at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, and it was bizarre to see the old bird in action one last time. Paul McCartney will be playing a final show at the 'Stick in August, and shortly thereafter, they're going to blow the place up. Sports fans had already said goodbye to the building, likely after the 49ers' last game there back in December, but it's still trudging along, whistling past the graveyard for a few more months. It was good to be reminded just how terrible a place it is for the playing of sports.
The game is part of U.S. Soccer's sendoff series -- three friendlies before the boys head off to Brazil -- but this one had zero preparatory qualities, unless Brazil is going to turn cold, windy and miserable. (Does Brazil have fog?) The U.S. won 2-0 against a team that, as a matter of strategy, rolled itself into a Buster Bluth defensive crouch all evening; the pace of the game is probably best referred to as "drowsy." It is no wonder Stuart Scott, postgame, was so confused that he thought his colleague Bob Ley was calling the game from Azerbaijan (rather than just down the hall in Bristol); if you didn't know any better you'd think the game was played in the Church of Kish. Unlike that building, Candlestick wasn't constructed in the 12th century. It just feels that way.
(Amusingly, the final sporting event at Candlestick will be on July 12, a flag football game featuring Joe Montana and Roger Craig and other 49ers luminaries playing against Dan Marino and some NFL All-Stars. If this makes you sad, remember: Candlestick was a scam to begin with. It almost makes what the Braves are doing look honorable, comparatively.)
Regardless, we're two weeks away from the start of the World Cup, and this match represented the finishing kick of preparation, both for the U.S. team and ESPN, which will be broadcasting the World Cup for the final time. (Fox is taking over in 2018.) It's fair to say that ESPN is more ready than the USMNT. One of the frustrating things about ESPN is how it has a tendency -- at least on the television side -- to dumb down the coverage of live events to the lowest common denominator, alienating and insulting a sport's most devoted fans in the process. (This is most prominent in the NFL -- the television coverage of professional football, on all networks, has reached the point that it makes you like the sport less -- but is also true for baseball and, to a lesser extent, the NBA.) This is particularly irksome because ESPN does such a terrific job with soccer.
It's worth noting that no other sport receives better live event coverage in this country than soccer. (I have friends in England who tell me they're envious of how much access we have to the Premier League.) NBC Sports Network has given the EPL downright worshipful prominence, and ESPN was never better than it was at the last World Cup. It's an odd paradox for American sports television: The fewer people who watch a sport, the better the coverage of it is. It's as if the NFL is too big and too powerful for anyone to trust simply selling the sport to its fans; you have to blow it up, with every available bell and whistle, to wring every possible eyeball. There's a modesty with how we show soccer these days; networks don't want to offend the most loyal, devoted fans, so they give them what they want, how they want it, with respect. What a concept, right?
It's why even a friendly against a country with the population of New Jersey feels exciting on ESPN from the outset; it's a rare sporting event that the network lets breathe. Much of this is because of the aforementioned Bob Ley. Ley is one of the two original ESPN anchors still on the network -- Chris Berman is the other -- and every time he's on screen, he's a reminder of why everyone was so excited that they had created a 24-hour sports network in the first place. He is smart and funny and light and yet still has appropriate gravitas; I find him the platonic ideal of a sports television personality. (That Berman is so much more well-known than him is an indictment of American culture.) Just by showing up, Ley elevates the proceedings, and that he is such a soccer guy -- he'll be on your screens every day throughout the World Cup month -- automatically ratchets up the network's commitment to the sport. The traditional buildup to a match, with the players slowly walking on the field and posing for a team picture, as we listen to both countries' anthems, is the sort of quiet, drawn-out anticipation that you never see in live sports anymore. When you make us feel like we're there -- rather than shaking rattles at us to make sure we're paying attention -- it makes the whole thing feel more important … more urgent.
This goes for the broadcast as well. When you're in the hands of an excellent soccer broadcaster like Jon Champion, it's pleasurable simply just to listen. It's probably not necessary that a sporting event feature such delectable phrases as "the defender is alert to the danger" or " this referee is football's equivalent of the hanging judge," but it warms the ears regardless. There's a subtlety to Champion -- as well as Ian Darke, who will take over for Martin Tyler as the lead ESPN broadcaster this World Cup -- that we could all use more of. I loved when, following a terrible corner kick from an Azerbaijan player, Champion simply said, after a pregnant pause, "his delivery … will have to improve." A nice way to put it.
It's yet another reason to be concerned about Fox taking over the World Cup for the next two cycles. The deficiencies of Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda have been well-documented -- Christopher Harris at World Soccer Talk has the strongest take here. And force-feeding Johnson on soccer fans confirms their worst fears: That the modesty of ESPN's and NBC's soccer coverage will be gone, that Fox will broadcast soccer the way ESPN broadcasts football. You know all that pregame buildup I was talking about, the way the game was allowed to breathe? Listening to Johnson and Wynalda, you can't help but worry if the Fox equivalent will feature robots making soccer balls explode and Frank Caliendo putting on a blonde wig and talking like Dieter. Appreciate Bob Ley on soccer while you can.
As for the game itself, well, it's fair to say that the USMNT has some work to do. This is a game that a top-tier nation probably wins 4-0, even as dull as Azerbaijan's strategy was, and the much-fretted-about defense made a ton of mistakes that Azerbaijan couldn't capitalize on the way, say, Cristiano Ronaldo will. The team didn't seem to miss Landon Donovan so much as it just looked sleepy, as if the small crowd at the 'Stick lulled them into sloth mode. (I'm as excited about the upward trajectory of U.S. Soccer as anyone, but there were 79,000 people in Paris to watch France's friendly vs. Norway on Tuesday; there was a third as many people in San Francisco.) Jozy Altidore, in particular, was unable to break out of his goal-scoring slump, something that's imperative for any success in Brazil.
But then again: This was just a friendly, in weird conditions, in a gusty old stadium that's about to be missed by no one. This was a warmup, for all of us -- the players, the coaches, the networks and the fans. It's about to get crazy, real soon. On Tuesday night, the only one who looked ready for what's coming was ESPN. Well, other than poor Stuart Scott.
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