Monday, July 18, 2011

Soccer's Role In America

If you didn’t watch the Women’s World Cup final yesterday, you really did miss an amazing performance that encapsulated every single thing that is great about sports.  But if you’re looking for clichéd hyperbole regarding Japan’s comeback, Rapinoe’s pass, and the greater emotional boost for a country that’s experienced extreme turmoil over the past four months, you can go to a number of other, traditional sports websites and read a version of the same, tired article.
But just as in 1999, after the USWNT won the World Cup, and also following this past year’s 2010 Men’s World Cup, the inevitable question of whether or not soccer has finally found a home in America has already been asked numerous times.  And, of course, the answer is…no.
Soccer is a beautiful sport, no doubt.  It requires elite athleticism and skill, it’s a wonderful test of endurance, and probably the only sport where a team’s fortunes can turn on a dime.  It’s definitely the lone sport that has the potential to feature absolute, one-sided domination, yet the scoreboard may remain at 0-0, not reflecting the action on the field.  And I, as a sports fan, have really come to appreciate the game over the past few years. 
But there are numerous reasons as to why Soccer is not popular in America.  For one, it’s not our sport and many Americans are resistant to entertainment that is perceived as “foreign” (which is why many Americans consider soccer to be “effete”) two, the NFL, MLB, and NBA are firmly entrenched here and people only have so much time, and three, and perhaps most importantly, the best players in the world play in European leagues and that’s not going to change anytime soon.  Similarly, our best athletes (and potential soccer players) choose other sports.  This is no knock on Landon Donovan, but if soccer was the most popular sport in America, I doubt an athlete of his caliber would be on the team due to the increased competition. 
But then why are World Cup games popular?
The reason the matches have resonated with the public has little to do with soccer and a lot to do with 1) the stakes at hand, 2) national pride, 3) the novelty of a sport that isn’t ours, and 4) the perception that we are the underdog (even though we were ranked #1 in the world for women’s soccer).
In a country where NFL football is easily the most popular sport (followed distantly by baseball and basketball), it’s ironic to think that America’s greatest sports moment was actually a hockey game.  Draped against the backdrop of the Cold War, the US 1980 Olympic hockey team, comprised of a bunch of college kids, took down the heavily favored Russians, who were athletically superior in every single way.  The beauty and power of that win, aside from political implications, can be directly attributed to the fact that America could assume the role of the underdog in a high stakes atmosphere, a role we so rarely get to play, and one that is a prime catalyst for communal unification. But, despite this event, professional hockey never achieved real popularity in the states.  Similarly, the 2010 Men’s World Cup soccer team enjoyed the same benefit.  In times where many Americans believe that America’s grip on world power is slipping, the 2010 World Cup provided a global stage to focus our nationalistic, (maybe jingoistic) belief that Americans are “tough” and “outwork” other countries to earn their success (whether BS or not, this is the thought process behind many, look no further than the strongly supported “American exceptionalism” ideal).  Soccer is not our sport, but the idea that America might come together and beat the favorites, in the most high stakes sporting tournament in the world, played directly into the national zeitgeist of “yes we can.”  And this was reflected in TV ratings and national pride throughout the tournament.  Not to mention, during a time period where our collective attention span is that of a four year old, the World Cup provided a brief platform for everyone to grab the bright shiny object without tiring of it.  And THAT is what made the World Cup (and the Women’s World Cup) popular.  It wasn’t the game as much as the stakes and the moment. 
If you take away the stakes, the fact that it’s the best against the best fighting for their country’s honor, then you just get another sports league in a country where said sport was never popular.  Sure, it might increase interest for a moment or two, and there are probably reasons why soccer, as a sport, doesn’t resonate with American audiences (though its pace does seem more “American” than something like baseball), but the fact that we are only exposed to soccer during intense tournaments really takes the wind out of its sails when trying to sell the public on an entire league where most of the games will be, in comparison, meaningless and inconsequential. 
It’s easy to fall in love with a novelty when you only are exposed to it for a few weeks and every game is “do or die.”  And I strongly believe that’s all soccer will be to this country: a sport that features a great tournament every four years that allows us to play the unfamiliar role of underdog, while also encouraging us to concentrate our national pride into something much more harmless, but in many ways just as emotional, as war. 


  1. Soccer has a home in America. It just doesn't have a home in the top 4 sports -- but it doesn't NEED that. Ask any soccer fan, and they'll tell you they don't want soccer to be the #1 sport necessarily. Sure, it would be great for trickle-down interest, but the grassroots movement has been going on for a while now and even at #5 -- we still have the per capita numbers to rival any other country on the planet.

    MLS average attendance per game is ahead of the NHL already, and we're talking about a league in its nascent stages. The first generation of kids are growing up with a professional soccer league in this country -- and that's where things begin. We are very much at the starting line, and we could see exponential growth in the next twenty years. The days where soccer fans felt the need to validate their sport are no loner de rigueur.

    Yes, we are still international underdogs as men -- where our women are annual favorites. Many would argue that the women's victory in 1999 was more of a victory for women's sports in general than simply American soccer. Each team fights for something different now -- and both should be weighed a bit differently.

    The women trailblazed a path that led to acceptance. The men fight for respect and a place in the global consciousness. The national teams are very much a window for the casual fan to look through onto our soccer culture. Where once we had none to speak of, you can see it -- finally, on the streets and in back yards. Soccer has a home, you just have to look for it.

  2. I don't disagree, I suppose I should have better defined "a home." Obviously, soccer has its fans, and with an ever growing immigrant population, it will continue to grow, especially as more American players find success on the professional level. I just question whether it will compete with our top three leagues. Perhaps in 100 years, when the world will no doubtedly become even more interconnected, it will, but I have a hard time seeing it take a huge piece of the pie, and will probably just remain a niche. And the MLS has been around for nearly 20 years, I'm not sure we can say its in its nascent stages anymore.

  3. I feel like you touched on the real issue here, which is that we're not the best and likely never will be because football, baseball, and basketball will always be ahead of soccer as the sports young kids want to play. I think it's less that the sport is not American and more that America is not the best.