Getting Stuck In: The Great American Hype Machine

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into The Great American Hype Machine as the nation waits for a world class player to emerge…

I was used to waiting. It’s part of the deal when you interview celebrities. This time, in 2004,  I was waiting to interview a soccer prodigy.  He was supposed to call at 10am. It reached 1pm. I called the Nike representative that set up the interview and asked if she could call him. She rang back an hour later and said he would be calling me in ten minutes. Two more hours went by. I called the Nike rep back again. She apologized and said he was busy playing an intense game of FIFA with friends during some downtime. He finally called at 5pm and didn’t even apologize for making a grown man wait.

You see, Freddy Adu has been making everyone wait his entire professional career. He has shown glimpses of magic with US youth teams but he has been an utter dud everywhere else he has gone. He has played for 13 teams in eight countries over a 12-year career so far. But is it all his fault? He has to take some of the blame for sinking faster than the Titanic. Some say bad attitude, bad practice habits, laziness, no commitment to defence are among some of his problems. My buddy Eric and I theorize about why he continues to move from club-to club and we just assume that he does something behind the scenes to piss off his managers. Some would just say he sucks. But some blame the ‘Great American Hype Machine’.

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Yes, we Americans are guilty of cranking up the Hype Machine to epic levels. We are always waiting for our Messi, our Ronaldo, our Pele – but we just get Adu. When Adu signed a pro contract with MLS side DC United at the age of 14 (debatable), we were all swept up in the Hype Machine with no idea he would be spat out 12 years later. Before he ever kicked a ball professionally, Nike gave him huge money and soft drink company Sierra Mist created a cool ad that debuted during Adu’s first pro game. It featured him with Pele on a soccer field competing for the last bottle of Sierra Mist. The ad sprouted from the American soccer intelligentsia saying Freddy Adu was the “next Pele” (Hype Machine at its worst). Even Pele bought in: “His left foot is fantastic. It’s like Mozart. God gave Freddy the gift to play soccer. If he is prepared mentally and physically, nobody will stop him.” Pele may have been an all-time soccer talent, but he’s not an all-time talent evaluator.

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Adu is only 26 (debatable) and mentally and physically he seems shot. Many think his career has finally come to an end because he now plays for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL, a division below MLS. He shows glimpses of being a decent player but when I found this headline the other day I wondered if Freddy was doing ok: “Freddie Adu has gone from ‘next Pele’ to vacuum cleaner salesman on Twitter”.

This brings us to the next great product of the Great American Hype Machine: Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. There is surely no way this kid will be the next Adu, right? Yes, the Machine has churned out hope-to-nope players like Julian Green and Juan Agudelo, and may take down Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood, but I think (and I hope) Pulisic is different. Here’s a few reasons why:

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  • He is 17 (not 14) and is being groomed with smarts by one of the best clubs for developing talent in Europe.
  • Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp loved him when he was Dortmund’s manager and saw him excel with their youth academy and destroy fools with the US U17 squad (20 goals in 34 appearances).
  • He is humble, respectful, hard working and technically sound (rare for an American player).
  • He is strong for his size, doesn’t back down from anyone (see his work against some of the strongest players in Germany).
  • He feels American. With all due respect to Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and the other German-Americans on the US squad, he is from Hershey, Pennsylvania so he feels authentic.
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When Pulisic became the youngest player to score two goals in the Bundesliga this past spring, I went bonkers. It convinced me that he was for real. No fugazi. Legit. Not just a good American player but considered a great European prospect. I mean, when a headline like this appears in the Daily Mail, I believe the hype: “Liverpool face competition from Real Madrid and Manchester City in pursuit of Borussia Dortmund whizzkid Christian Pulisic.”

Are you kidding me? Pulisic wearing the kit of my beloved Liverpool? An American, dancing around the midfield to You’ll Never Walk Alone on one of those special European nights at Anfield? I just hope the Hype Machine leaves him alone. Because if he does come down with a bad case of Adu-itis, I don’t know how much more waiting I can take.

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Getting Stuck In: The American definition of “world class”

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into whether the U.S. have ever produced a world-class soccer player and looks at three candidates…

When will the U.S. produce a world-class soccer player? It’s a fair question. We haven’t come close and probably won’t unless we get some of our best athletes from American football (throwball) and basketball to make the switch to soccer. We need the Stephen Curry’s and Russell Wilson’s of the world to fall in love with the game at six years old, see the financial potential of soccer (MLS would likely need to trash the salary cap), and then maybe, just maybe, we could produce a world-class player.

But wait. On further inspection, maybe we have produced a world-class player. Ok, maybe not an outfield player, but what about a goalkeeper?

People in the know say Americans make great net-minders because of the hand-eye coordination it takes to play basketball, baseball and American football – the three sports most commonly played by youngsters when growing up. It’s why there have been three American goalkeepers who I would categorise as “world class.” We are not talking Ronaldo or Messi calibre here, but within the ‘keeper fraternity, there are three top guys: Tim Howard, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. Let me make a case for each one:

Brad Friedel

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Friedel is one of my favourite U.S. players to have played the game. He comes from Ohio but has a legit English accent to this day due to his lengthy playing career in England. The man owns a ton of Premier League records playing for Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. He makes many people’s top 10 list for the best Premier League goalkeepers of all time. But his most impressive work came with the U.S. Men’s National Team, most notably during the 2002 World Cup when the U.S. made a magical run to the quarterfinals. Friedel was arguably the best ‘keeper in the tournament behind Germany’s Oliver Kahn. In that tournament Friedel made two non-shootout penalty saves, which is almost unheard of at such a high level. Kahn was out of his mind, making world-class save after world-class save, but Friedel was not far behind.

You probably need to win a World Cup to be considered truly world class in today’s game, but look at a player like Iker Casillas. He’s a World Cup winner but has looked terrible for a few years now – have you seen him with Porto lately? Friedel was at the top of his game well into his late 30’s and early 40’s. Longevity, class, talent and one of the most accurate long kicks in the world surely mean Friedel was knocking on the door of being labelled world class.

Kasey Keller

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I put Keller slightly behind Friedel. But only slightly. His cat-like reflexes and cool demeanor made him a fan-favourite when he was with Millwall. And we all know how tough those fans can be. He played with Tottenham and Borussia Monchengladbach as well as Fulham and Leicester City during his time in Europe. But he was best known for being capped with the USMNT 102 times. The highlight of his career came in a historic win over Brazil, in which he made a staggering 13 saves, many from point-blank range. This prompted Romario to say: “That is the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen.” Keller was a real good guy, who was a leader, great communicator and was able to dictate the pace of the game from the back. So what if he sulked at times for not being picked as first choice? We have all done that.

Tim Howard

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Yes, we all know about the record 16 saves made against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, which says a lot about Howard but more about the questionable U.S. backline. But it’s his club career where he has really distinguished himself. He was bought by Manchester United and played incredibly well during his first year, being named to the best XI in the Premier League. Unfortunately Alex Ferguson (the manager) never forgave him for blowing it in the Champions League against Porto. He was buried, and to make it even worse, was replaced by the great (insert sarcasm here) Roy Carroll. Everton signed Timmy and boy, was that good business! He has appeared in over 350 games for the Toffees over a ten-year period, making save after save on his way to becoming endeared by the Goodison Park faithful. His shot-stopping ability is world class. Unfortunately his work on crosses is not as good as it could be. That’s why he is third on this list behind Keller and Friedel. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

I may never see another crop of American goalkeepers like Friedel, Keller and Howard in my lifetime. But what concerns me is that the next star between the sticks is yet to step forward. Friedel and Keller have retired. Howard’s form has slipped to the point of backup and he is set to return to MLS with the Colorado Rapids this summer.

What about Guzan? Good start to his Villa career, not so good this year. Sean Johnson? Bill Hamid? Good MLS ‘keepers but not worth mentioning, even though I just did. Cody Cropper may be in line for greatness, but right now he is playing for Championship side Milton Keynes Dons.

Wow, I just got a world class headache.

Getting Stuck In: The Prince of Columbus

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into Frankie Hejduk, the retired Crew SC and USMNT great, and the impact he is having on the city of Columbus.

By Dave Lewis

Remember Jeff Spicoli from the 1982 cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High? (Ok, you may need to Google it). Now picture him as a 140-pound (soaking wet) footballer with the aqua-lung capacity of a dolphin that can bomb up and down the right flank for 90 minutes a game. It’s Frankie Hejduk, the surfer dude from Southern California that ironically calls his adopted home Columbus, Ohio (C-Bus, as the local bearded hipsters like to call it), a land-locked capital city that is 900 miles away from the nearest beach and has more cloudy days than Seattle.

The Black and Gold of Columbus Crew Soccer Club has been coursing through Frankie’s skinny veins ever since he debuted for them in 2003. His footballing prowess took him to Germany (Bayer Leverkusen), South Korea and Japan (started four games for the US in their miracle run to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002), a quick stop in Switzerland and then on to Columbus (played 8 seasons with Columbus Crew SC, winning the MLS Cup in 2008). Not a bad run, but the second half of his career is just kicking off.

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Walk or drive around Columbus today and you will most likely bump into Frankie. It could be a coffee shop on High Street, a bar in the Brewery District or at Fados Irish Pub. Hey, you might even pull up to a stoplight and idle next to him as he peers over the steering wheel of his black and yellow car with the Columbus Crew SC logo emblazoned on the side with Bob Marley blaring out of the windows. If you do see him, he will always take the time to talk to you, and talk some more and then talk a little bit more.

“Hey dude,” Frankie says in his best Spicoli-stoner tone as I bump into him on a chilly Tuesday morning at a local java spot last year. I say: “What up Frankie. Saw you the other day at Fourth Street. Looked like you were having a blast.” He says: “I am always having a blast man… don’t know any other way, dude.” He talks my ear off for ten minutes about everything from the Crew, Ohio State football, to the “rad” coffee this place has. In fact, Frankie is the rare athlete you have to tell, “Hey, I gotta run. No really, I gotta run”.

Frankie’s free-spirited nature is fan friendly – he once showed up in the Crew parking lot for a tailgate with fans before a game he was injured for to share a few “brewskis” – but not exactly corporate friendly. But somehow he has defied the odds, just like he did by dragging his scrawny body across pitches around the world. The Crew decided back in 2012, after he retired from MLS, to make him their brand ambassador. Some laughed at the appointment. “No way Frankie could rep the Crew in any other way than drinking some Buds and having a laugh with the fans,” the critics said. But he never changed his ways and that’s why management loves him.

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He has embraced his U.N.-like role and is now part of the fabric of not only Crew games but the city of Columbus itself. So much so that you might be looking out of your office and see Frankie running down High Street with a huge Crew flag as he chants “we are massive” on a random Monday (saw it!). Or maybe you will hang with him at Fados as he drapes himself in Crew gear and stands behind the bar minutes before an away game, leading the supporters in voice, giving out scarves and free tickets to future games while enjoying the spirit(s). But Frankie is best known in the Nordecke, the main supporters section that is located in the northeast end of MAPFRE Stadium (it will always be Crew Stadium to me), for getting the supporters worked up into a frothy frenzy.

Frankie was so loved during his playing days that the Crew die-hards paid their respects by singing:

He chugged a beer in a fan’s truck bed, HEJDUK! HEJDUK!
“Columbus til I die” he said, HEJDUK! HEJDUK!
The black and gold’s heart and soul,
Steals the ball and stops a goal,
Frankie Hejduk, Columbus’ number two…

He adores the fans right back because he is one of them. Just a regular guy. You know, a surfer dude from Cali that feels right at home in Middle America. As the infamous Jeff Spicoli once said: “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.” Frankie would agree.


Header photo courtesy of Frankie Hejduk on Twitter: @FrankieHejduk2