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USL Top Five – Commercials Featuring Championship and League One Figures

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 02/05/21, 12:30PM EST

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From Tim Howard hulking out to John Harkes at the White House, here are some classic spots

There’s little question about soccer’s popularity as a sport worldwide. The FIFA Men’s World Cup and Women’s World Cup are among the most-viewed events in the sporting calendar, and the rise of digital technology has brought more games into more homes – including those of the USL Championship and USL League One – than ever before both in domestic markets and globally.

In the game’s modern era it has also seen the game become a 24/7 lifestyle. The kit drops, the merch, the video games, the even more elaborate announcements of new signings on social media have built up a culture around the sport that speaks to fans and ties them closer to their teams and favorite players.

One major element in this transformation has been in commercials, where some of the most creative agencies have come up with brilliant ideas to promote the latest must-have product, or simply the brand itself. And as it happens, some notable past and present figures in the USL Championship and League One have been at the center of those spots.

Here are five of my favorites.

Nike5 – The Cage (Joe Cole)

There’s nothing like a game of small-field, sharp-skilled five-a-side, right? Well, it sure helps if you get to bring former Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder and England international Joe Cole along as a ringer for your squad.

The Nike5 campaign launched in 2010 as it embraced the street game played in differing varieties around the world. The cultural influence can still be seen in some of the world’s best players and is also embodied in the pick-up style games that were and will hopefully be hosted again by groups like San Diego’s Bridge Barkada. Cole’s magic is on full display in this spot, so savor the flash that could once be see at Al Lang Stadium.

adidas Predator – White House (John Harkes)

We’re jumping into the way-back machine for this adidas commercial featuring current Greenville Triumph SC Head Coach John Harkes for the launch of a new edition of the Predator, one of the iconic boots in soccer history. Then part of the D.C. United squad that won the first two MLS Cups as the league came into being in the 1990s, Harkes has managed to break into the White House grounds, I imagine to let President Bill Clinton know that professional soccer has arrived.

With the classic theme tune from “The Streets of San Francisco” as the soundtrack, Harkes outpaces the Secret Service and races within sight of the Oval Office before using his Predators to blast a shot through the window and onto the Resolute Desk before being mauled to the ground.

This wasn’t Harkes’ only adidas spot. You can also see him here alongside some of the organization’s other big names at the time, including Paul Gascoigne, a young David Beckham, Edwin Van Der Sar, Dennis Bergkamp, Marcel Desailly and D.C. United teammate Marco Etcheverry in another great reel.

Nike – Write the Future (Didier Drogba)

It’s the biggest sporting event in the world, and you’re at the peak of your powers. As you bring the ball down and break into the space past your marker, cut past another defender, and then lift a shot past the onrushing goalkeeper the entire stadium – nay, an entire country – rises to its feet. You shoot… and that damned Fabio Cannavaro clears it off the line.

Former Phoenix Rising FC captain and current minority owner Didier Drogba is one of the featured players in what might currently go down as the greatest World Cup commercial ever created. The way the Cote D’Ivoire legend’s motion is captured, and that of rising volume in the crowd and commentary team, is masterful – only to be spoiled at the last minute.

The three-minute epic not only featured Drogba and Cannavaro but also Wayne Rooney, Franck Ribéry, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roger Federer and Kobe Bryant – oh, and check out the cameos from Tim Howard and Landon Donovan in the Rooney section – in an all-star spot that served as a peak for soccer in mainstream culture.

Nike – Winner Stays (Tim Howard)

We’ve all done this, right? You’re out with your mates for a game of pick-up and you’re not you anymore. You’re suddenly Christian Pulisic, or Tyler Adams, or Weston McKennie, or another big global name. (Me? I’m currently Cambridge United FC magician Wes Hoolahan. Yellow and Black Army!)

This spot brings that idea to life as a regular park game suddenly turns into a World Cup All-Star Game that breaks the boundaries of who you might choose to be in such a situation. Faced with the challenge of jostling between Neymar Jr. and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, our goalkeeping hero decides it’s time to Hulk up. No, not the former Brazilian striker, but Dr. Bruce Banner’s alter ego, the Hulk.

That seems like an unfair advantage, but who better to transform into that one of the world’s best goalkeepers instead? The switch to current Memphis 901 FC Sporting Director Tim Howard is seamless, if slightly less muscular. This spot aired before and during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, during which Howard set a World Cup single-game record with 16 saves against Belgium. Hulking up, indeed. 

EA Sports – Always in the Game (Landon Donovan)

The announcement of the United States’ final roster for the FIFA 2014 World Cup was an announcement that shook fans and media. Legendary forward Landon Donovan had been omitted.

So, what’s a company to do when someone it had planned its product launch isn’t going to be part of the event featured? In the best tradition of making lemonade out of the lemons you’ve been handed EA Sports created an all-time great commercial.

Everything about this spot is perfect. Donovan’s robe and slippers, the morning breakfast routine, the immediate jump onto the console, the knowing glance across to the camera after virtual Landon is seen celebrating with the World Cup trophy after leading his country to glory? All brilliant. Cap it off with Donovan forlornly singing, “I’m not going to Brazil” – adapted from a taunt toward Mexico from U.S. fans when El Tri’s participation was very much in doubt – and Donovan’s sense of humor shines through.

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