States of Progression

In a week when Richard Dunne was linked with two clubs in MLS, including a reunion with Robbie Keane in LA, Póg Mo Goal looks at the recent leaps in the American game and asks if the USA will become the future training ground for more Irish footballers?

They call it the Beckham factor. On this side of the pond, cynicism met the news of David Beckham’s departure for LA in 2007. Many felt he still had something to offer at football’s top level. America was where retiring footballers went to die. The league was deemed inferior. The Americans used phrases like ‘PK’ instead of ‘penalty’, and were obsessed with assists and other statistics as if they made up for a lack of the real currency in football, goals.

Yet, Beckham succeeded in his aim to raise the profile of the world’s most popular game in a sports-mad country that had threatened but largely failed to embrace it in the past. Soccer has become part of the sporting landscape for the American fan, as likely to be found in any sportsbook review as the heavyweights of the NFL and NBA. What’s more, the increased coverage of Beckham’s exploits, and by extension the league, on this side of the Atlantic has lent American soccer a new credibility.

We knew the US was a powerhouse in women’s soccer but we knew too that many saw the male-equivalent as an unmanly game, not like the rough and tumble of grid-iron or basketball.

America may have hosted the World Cup in 1994 but the media coverage then was interspersed with vox-pops with locals who were oblivious to the fact that the biggest sporting event on the planet was taking place on their doorstep. But, despite the lingering ignorance of outside observers, all that has changed.

Soccer is now the number one participation sport for young Americans while a recent ESPN poll named the game second in popularity among 12-24 year-olds ahead of baseball, basketball and college football.

In the days when Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer lined out for the New York Cosmos, they were seen as a novelty act. Now the Cosmos have been resurrected, competing in the second-tier North American Soccer League. Their training gear is a must-have for hipsters and fashion-conscious New Yorkers. Last week Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team-mates were featured on ’60 Minutes’, the nation’s prime-time current affairs show. ‘Soccer’ is now part of contemporary American culture.

David Beckham’s massively successful stints at AC Milan during the MLS close-season surprised many who felt his standards would drop playing in a poorer league. His oft-repeated desire to remain in the England squad struck a chord and for a short period, the then national manager Fabio Capello obliged the icon’s wishes. What it also demonstrated was that distance was not the obstacle many had once thought. Thierry Henry followed in Beckham’s footsteps lending further credibility for football fans here while MLS games became increasingly available on television in Europe.

The US national team, many of whom are drawn from the domestic game, have also grabbed headlines, consistently qualifying from the group stages at the World Cup and reaching the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup, eliminating Spain in the semi-finals, before losing to 3-2 to Brazil.

Ireland has had its connections with the MLS in the past. Former record goal-scorer Frank Stapleton managed New England Revolution in 1996. But perhaps the most remarkable story is that of Ronnie O’Brien whose career eventually saw him move from Juventus to America. He spent several years with Dallas, where he made the MLS team-of-the-year, before enjoying spells at Toronto and San Jose. Robbie Keane, Darren O’Dea, and Andy O’Brien are now plying their trade in the US with LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps respectively.

It was Robbie Keane’s move to LA which really fired the imagination on this side of the Atlantic and the Irish Sea. Some were sceptical of the move. Others could hardly fault him for choosing the Californian sun and Hollywood lifestyle over another season in, say, Glasgow for example. But it was Beckham’s trail-blazing that softened many Irish observers’ stance.

Keane’s insatiable appetite to turn out for his country also drew admiration, helped in no small part by the striker’s red-hot form in an Irish shirt when he fired the crucial goals to help the Republic reach a major finals for the first time in a decade.

Ireland’s disastrous showing at Euro 2012 has led some to question the future of Keane in the national team. His contemporaries in the squad, Shay Given and Damien Duff, have waved good-bye to the international set-up. Some predicted Keane and his fellow Tallaghtman Dunne would follow suit but they’ve stayed the course.

Dunne is now mentioned in transfer news touting a move to the US. His tough-exterior, tenacious attitude, and man-mountain performances made him legendary at both Everton and a pre-‘new money’ Manchester City but his current status at a desperately poor Aston Villa looks uncertain.

A move to New York Red Bulls was mooted last week while media reports now link him with a potential reunion with Keane in LA.

It was the former Man City chief executive Garry Cook who justified jettisoning Dunne from the Eastlands revolution by claiming the Dubliner’s wasn’t a name that would sell replica kits in Asia.

Perhaps Dunne wasn’t big enough for Manchester but his name could yet be adorning shirts in a country where the ever-growing appetite for soccer is as great as the Irishman’s courage on the football pitch. With Keane and Dunne pointing the way, the dream for future Irish soccer stars may lay out west.

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