America and soccer have never had much more than a tepid amateur relationship. The paradox of this relationship resides in the fact that there are more soccer players in the United States than England, France, Argentina, Spain, and Brazil combined (FIFA.com).
If you ask anyone if they’ve played on a club team at some point in their life, the answer is usually yes. If you ask people if they know the rules and whether they like soccer, the answer is also yes. If you ask anyone if they actually follow any games, the answer is no.
I should say that I know plenty of people who “watch” soccer, but they follow it passively and could only tell you that they like Barcelona (and it’s always Barcelona. Ask them to name just three players and they can’t; if anything they might still say Ronaldinho! Hah!)
There are the classic reasons for our lack of excitement in the (rest-of-the) world’s game: we already have other established professional sports leagues; a serious lack of syndication; an inherent American aversion to European cultural institutions; and our ill-managed and oft-forgotten National Team. We could argue the smaller points of a lack of commercial viability for soccer on American TV, but the true tragedy lies in the rare American citizens who put the fan in fanatic. We are lonely freaks, watching games by ourselves in quiet bars at noon. We (and it’s hard to say ‘we’ when I personally don’t know of any others) talk about the games to ourselves, with no human face towards which we can propel our wrenched guts about that call or that play or that move. We flail our arms in joy while our eyes scan the room for someone to share the moment with. There are no friends in this room, city, state… country.
We call it soccer. Americans who call it football are either confused or come across as smarmy elitists who enjoy watching the MLS. I’m not anti-MLS, but there is a huge difference between the MLS and any of the top divisions in Europe. I hate being elitist, but after having forced myself to watch dozens and dozens of MLS games, I can never seem to have the same experience as I do when I watch even the bottom-tier Premier League teams play. The embarrassment of buying Beckham has also hurt the MLS by bringing in more assholes who wear Barcelona jerseys whenever they watch a game at the bar (which is twice a year, max, and yet they say “yeah, I follow soccer”).
You might say “hey, I’ve watched soccer in a bar in America,” and yes, I’ll agree that in many major cities there are plenty of places to go and watch games with others. The catch is that they are just that: Others. Foreigners – usually Brits – quiz the naÃ¯ve Americans on teams and players and look you up and down waiting for an appropriate response (and no offense intended, it’s just an observation). The answer is never good enough: the team is always the wrong choice and you can never answer on a whim what Shaun Wright-Phillips preferred position was at Chelsea. Shunned, you sip your beer quietly… but what is that? A couple of Americans sitting a table over? Oh, wait… no, they’re wearing Ronaldinho jerseys and drinking bottles of Bud Light. Fuck that. You don’t go back to the soccer bar. At home you resign to a solitary, reflective existence, always clicking around on websites that end in “dot co dot uk” for more stats, more news, more transfer rumors…
The American soccer fan has one big friend, albeit a non-human one, in the internet. The internet has done more for American soccer than 10 David Beckhams could ever do. The internet democratizes soccer for the American consumer and allows us to connect to the game as never before. We have access to sites devoted to news, analysis, commentary, discussion, and the best feature of all: streaming video. In the olden times (two or three years ago) one had to get satellite TV and then subscribe to a sports package with 100 random channels just to get access to FSC and Setanta. Now, I have access to dozens of sites where I can pick and choose which games I want to see in the comfort of my own living room. No more uncomfortable trips to cheesy Irish-themed “soccer bars” (and why are they always Irish-themed, as though the Irish are the only ones who drink while watching soccer) in midtown Manhattan where a pint costs 9 dollars. When I found out about watching games on the internet a couple of years ago, my spirit revolted upon itself and burst anew, causing my eyes to explode in glory and joy. Though I earlier lamented the downsides of watching it alone, I am just grateful that I can experience the emotional supernova of the game that courses through my atomic makeup.
BOOM. THIS SHIT IS SO FUCKING AWESOME.
That’s usually what I feel like while watching a truly majestic match, but words are too limiting. If you were to simultaneously smoke a blunt, have two orgasms, and have your legs ripped off, it might equal the intensity that you and I feel. I know that the soccer-obsessed American is in the minority, but we make up for our tiny numbers in our collective emotional bloodletting. Our small group will be the first ones to tell you that our national team has a ways to go, and we will support them even through the worst regimes (Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley…).
With all this optimism, however, comes pragmatism. I understand that soccer will never be as much a fixture in American culture as baseball, football or basketball. It is important to realize that these sports take precedent in America, and that if we are to experience top level soccer, we must look at two exciting trends: the increasing number of venues showing games (internet and TV accessibility), and the rising talent of our own homegrown players. Think about the effect that Yao Ming has had on basketball in China. Now think what might happen if the United States was to have its own star player on Juventus or even (gasp!) Barcelona (and as much as I rag on them, I do understand that it would be a great moment for the American soccer cause). The commercial effect is important, because a superstar would bring exposure. Landon Donovan is arguably the biggest star we have, but think about the advertisements in the US during the World Cup. They are filled with the soccer celebrities du jour, which in 2006 were mainly Brazilians sprinkled with a little Zidane. But this isn’t about what’s in soccer ads, it’s about what’s not, and that’s an American face.
Yet there’s good news in the end. The internet will allow for greater exposure, but it’s also important to recognize the role of our national team in America’s soccer growth. The American squad itself is in a transformative period, with some great upcoming talent and by far the best squad we’ve ever had. As for our league, while I support the MLS, it will obviously never be up to the level of the European leagues. However, it’s possible that the MLS can get exciting enough to be watchable. I do not think the best talent should stay in the US. If we are ever to compete on an international level, we need players to spend time in Europe, playing for the top clubs (and yes, I know Adu and Altidore are leading the way, but they need more time to mature before we can call them fixtures on the international scene). With more Americans playing for top clubs in Europe, the intensity of the interest will rise. I started out by saying that many Americans know what soccer is. The fundamental difference is that Americans need to get more intense. How many years will it be before an American not only puts on a Liverpool (or Chelsea, or AC Milan, or Real Madrid!) jersey, but is a fixture in the starting 11!
Our passion will sustain us. This is what I keep coming back to. The small band of illusory American soccer fanatics will survive and grow, but we will also have to remain patient and rely on technological ingenuity to feed our craving. This is the most exciting part, because as the American youth grow up, they will invariably have more access to soccer than our parents did. Maybe one day the Champions League final will be broadcast, primetime, on ABC! Maybe I’ll be able to discuss the finer points of Everton’s defense while in line for groceries! Maybe not that… but maybe I’ll go to bar in five years and not want to disappear into the suds at the bottom of the glass. Maybe I’ll stand up on my chair, hear Americans cheering on our national team, and then fall down drunk! Maybe baby. Maybe.
Written by Will Roche.
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).