The Generation Gap in American Soccer

Soccer is still in diapers in America. It is not played on the street, in every park, or in every playground around the country, like it is in almost every other country. Kids don’t grow up exposed to the game on a daily basis — it’s not in the media, in politics or in recreation. We are making progress, but I believe we are still a generation or two away from challenging for a World Cup title.

Professional soccer is sparsely televised on TV, unless you purchase Fox Soccer Channel, Setanta, or GolTV. There just isn’t a market for it yet. It is growing, but in America, soccer is growing at a limited level. We don’t see children playing pick-up games, in the ghettos, in gyms or on the streets, like it is everywhere else in the world. Everywhere you look around the world, you see soccer being played, talked about and worshiped. More importantly, the generation gap between our youth and elders has developed a conflicting interest for the sport. The older generation in America lacks the love, passion and support for soccer. This is due to the fact that most people over 30 have never played, watched or even understand the game.

Yet, for our youth it is the most growing and popular sport. In other words, soccer in America is like a developing 3rd world country (the U.S.) compared to a developed 1st world country (the rest of the world). Conversely, on a global level there is not a generation gap, explaining why soccer is the most “popular” game in the rest of the world, but not in the US.

In the States, soccer is un-American, viewed as boring and soft. The older generations are typically critics of soccer in America, opposing the game because of nationalistic, Americanization and traditionalist views. Most view it as a friendly game, minority exhibition, and recreational activity — an inferior sport. Football, baseball and basketball were all invented in the US, whereas soccer was invented in Europe. This fact makes people very jealous, resentful and wary about the beautiful game. Many see soccer as a transcending sport, embracing a foreign culture and a new outlook on sports.

The older generation’s current attitude of our soccer can best be illustrated with the acquisition of David Beckham, and it begs a question of manliness of soccer players. These anti-soccer generations of sports fans are disappointed by Beckham because he failed to play in the much of this MLS season due to injury. In his debut he failed to start despite the hoopla surrounding his debut. In the eyes of critics, he didn’t “tough it out” or “play through” his injury, thus tarnishing his reputation from the beginning and further diminishing soccer’s value in their eyes.

It is unfortunate that he was hobbled, yet most of our youth who understand the game realize his skill level and his needed recovery time. But for the average sports fan, his inability to make an immediate impact and persevere with all of America watching doesn’t help soccer. The hard hitting in the sport goes unnoticed because most have never played the game and don’t understand that getting flogged in the ankles, legs and feet takes a tremendous toll on the body. Slide tackles, trips, and the constant pushing and shoving without pads is not respected in America, especially since our adults and elders ages 30 and up have grown up with balls in their hands and not at their feet.

The generation gap is an issue that we must face in terms of our nation’s achievement in the World Cup and on an international level. In terms of soccer in America, I am a firm believer that we are still a generation away from being able to compete. I think it will be the kids born in 2010 and beyond that will make the most impact on the success for soccer in America. Until soccer reaches the inner cities and kids everywhere are introduced to a more knowledgeable and experienced older generation of coaches, fans and experiences, we will continue to be a lower tiered country in soccer. After all the passion for soccer in America is lacking because we don’t have the support system, knowledge, or soccer players of an older generation.

Soccer really has just begun here, and unfortunately, we are just initiating our soccer tradition. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a dramatic change in American soccer. It moved out of our ethnic communities and was adopted by suburban families across the country. Soccer became the sport of choice for many suburban parents, who gave the sport a unique character. The NASL began and disappeared despite some of the greatest players competing in the 80’s and with the creation of the MLS in the 90’s we are the ugly duckling of the of the soccer world. Hopefully, we don’t let the tortoise get away!

Soccer pioneers in developing American soccer will be our current enthusiasts and our younger generations should be in the best position to take advantage of the United States soccer market once its consumers begin taking a more active interest in the sport. Given the increased scope of television and the internet, the time line for this conversion is shortening and the age gap is diminishing, slowly but surely.

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