American soccer nation demonstrates overwhelming, inspiring support for Robbie Rogers

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I am remarkably proud of our soccer nation today.

Going way back, I have always thought of soccer fans as a slightly more enlightened breed. Historically you cannot have worn the soccer label in this country without some ability to think for yourself; there was always a ninny out there telling you to get in line and support the “traditional” American sports.

Friday proved it, when a person previously reluctant to be the best version of himself brought out the very best side of the collective U.S. soccer supporter nation.

Robbie Rogers did something on Friday that took tremendous courage, coming out as a gay man. The American soccer supporters reacted with an overwhelming, inspiring show of support.

Men’s professional sports remain hard-wired into a certain machismo and some corresponding old ways of thinking when it comes to matters of women and sexuality. Individually, we may have become more enlightened and permissive as a society, but evolution within a group dynamic has been harder to come by.

Believe it: what Rogers did took vast stores of backbone.

Even at the highest levels, they did more than just let Rogers know what he did was OK; they acknowledged the breakthrough and the bravery:

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Rogers has appeared 18 times for the full national team. That’s exactly what helped make this so significant and newsworthy; Rogers was hardly some obscure figure in the game, once among the most promising young American talent. A 2008 Olympic team member, the speedy left winger quite nearly landed a World Cup roster spot back in 2010, just as he turned 23.

From the playing community, the outpouring was nothing short of inspirational, so much of it delivered publicly via Twitter, so many punctuated by a hashtag of earnest admiration and understanding: #respect

(MORE: Great insight into Rogers’ weighty decision)

And so many were more than just “We got your back.”  Longtime U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, for instance, said what was on so many minds, something becoming more and more evident as the public support mounted. “The bravery of Robbie Rogers in commendable, I hope he realizes that he doesn’t need to retire. He will be more supported than he knows”

MLS players gathered in Arizona for a preseason tournament were scheduled for a round of video interviews, so they took the opportunity to support Rogers on camera.

The Seattle Sounders did a video of their own. That was capped with an MLS public service message where prominent players, including Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario, advised that the league was a no-bullying, no-racism, no-sexism and no-homophobia zone. It also included a statement of support from Marc Burch, who was caught on camera last year in bigoted moment. (Burch subsequently and profusely apologized for his poor choice of words.)

Players from the league champion LA Galaxy voiced their support.

Like Burch, Galaxy midfielder Colin Clark had a particularly bad moment in 2012. He was suspended early last year for directing a homophobic slur toward a young ball boy (for which he went out of his way to humbly make amends). So Clark’s show of support particularly resonated.

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Meanwhile, the support from fans was similarly overwhelming – and overwhelmingly positive. Even Rogers was taken aback.

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Colleague Brian Straus from The Sporting News, also wrote of the stunning stream of  support. He eloquently nailed the U.S. soccer fan dynamic here that creates a more accepting collective.

Thanks to American soccer’s unique demographics, there likely is no sports league in this part of the world more prepared to accept an active gay player than MLS. Soccer remains somewhat counter culture in the U.S. and Canada. MLS fans often are young and urban. Many of the league’s players are well traveled or well educated. The “New America” that so many pundits discussed during last fall’s presidential election—diverse in some ways, cosmopolitan in others—is far more likely to embrace soccer than the old.

We all deserve to be the best that we can be. No one should be relegated to the outer markers, circling the airport, afraid to land at the fullest version of themselves.

American soccer at large took the opportunity to remind Rogers of that, and tell him that we’re all good here.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE

Petkovic: Time to “take Switzerland seriously” after Brazil draw

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While much of the talk about Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Brazil and Switzerland will focus on the former, the Swiss would like their share of credit for frustrating — and matching — one of a handful of favorites to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic is chief among those who believe it’s time those on the outside “start taking notice of us and taking us seriously.” As for the insinuations that his side roughed up Neymar, who suffered 10 of the 19 fouls committed by Switzerland, most of them were “very clean” — quotes from the BBC:

“Sometimes if there is a lack of recognition that is a pity because we have played very well. We showed and demonstrated that this team always believes in itself and can achieve results.

“Most of the duels (with Neymar) were won in a very clean way. It was one of the key ingredients to neutralize Neymar.”

“I’m very proud and pleased with the discipline with the way we played. We worked collectively and cohesively.”

“When we are able to play forward and press higher up we were able to do it well and it is an excellent starting position for the rest of our group matches.

“We had real difficulties in the first 40 minutes, I said ‘let’s remain calm, focused and believe in ourselves, push up higher up the pitch and create opportunities to score.'”

Having secured a point in far and away their toughest group game, Switzerland now have eminently winnable games against Serbia (Friday) and Costa Rica (Wednesday, June 27) remaining. Four points from those two games would just about guarantee progression to the knockout rounds.