In Defense of Soccer in the United States

There are two things that will make any US soccer fan cringe: 1) the image of a player, clearly acting, sitting on the ground and holding his knee in an excruciating pantomime of injury (‘get up!’ we yell at the TV, ‘there could be hockey fans watching!’) and 2) listening to a room full of friends – sports fans, probably – talk about how much they hate the sport.

“Well, did you watch the World Cup?” we ask.

”I watched a couple of minutes of the Brazil game,” they always say, and they quickly add, “but it was so boring that I had to turn it off.”

How is it that the entire world can find a game deliriously exciting when 90% of Americans cannot physically sit through a match without becoming cripplingly bored?  The answer is extraordinarily nuanced; involving geopolitics, the growth of leisure time activities in Europe and America in the 19th century, and the differences of crowd participation dynamics among cultures.  In its simplest form, the answer has to do with the following: the United States likes to export cool, and we aren’t interested in importing cool.

We’ve given the world black culture, blue jeans, cigarettes, Easy Rider, and fedoras (I wikipediaed it, smart guy).  We’re like the older brother of what’s cool in the world.  Imagine your kid brother trying to turn you on to some of his music.  You wouldn’t even listen to it.  You’d say, “Lil’ Wayne sucks.  You suck.  Get the hell out of my room.”

So, soccer isn’t cool because we didn’t come up with it.  Fine.  But, how did Lil’ Wayne (I’ll let it go in a second, I promise) get so popular without ‘the older brothers’ of the world?  Grassroots.  He passed out mix tapes in New Orleans that spread like wildfire.

So it is with soccer in the United States.  The wildfire is smoldering.  In Portland.  Philadelphia.  Salt Lake City.  Seattle.  Columbus.  Houston.  Can you see it on Sportscenter?  Nope.  Can you read about it in Sports Illustrated?  Absolutely not.  But can you, like 5 million fans did last year, get the goods first hand at one of 13 soccer-specific stadiums and 19 teams across the US and Canada?  Hell yes, you can.

I support the Columbus Crew.  Proudly, passionately and vocally.  In 2008, we won MLS Cup.  I will never forget watching that magical team, blessed with the audacious Frankie Hejduk, stalwart Chad Marshall, stoic and efficient Brian Carroll, wunderkind Robbie Rogers, feisty (if dive prone) Alejandro Moreno and that brilliant Argentine conjurer, our Hudson Street Savior, Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Crew fans in the infamous "Nordecke" show what it means to be Massive.

The excitement of the games during the stretch run of that season was indescribable, especially the epic Conference Final against Chicago in frigid temperatures at Crew Stadium in November.  I watched the Cup Final (which was played in Los Angeles) in an old movie theatre in North Columbus with 400 screaming, chanting Crew fans.  Epic.

Sports in the United States are thriving.  But as they grow more and more successful, the athletes become increasingly un-relatable and the games are based on entertainment value over quality (see: steriod scandals, head-to-head tackles and the entire NBA).  MLS is a league where the scale is still human; the jubilation is still genuine.

“I like soccer.  I’ll watch Manchester United if they’re on, but the quality of play in MLS blows.” says the semi-informed skeptic.  Yet, Real Salt Lake sits on the precipice of a North American Championship.  They will play Mexican champs Monterrey in a home match for the title of CONCACAF  Champions’ League this Wednesday, April 27th (10 pm ET on Fox Soccer Channel).  En route the final, they vanquished Costa Rica Champion Saprissa and Mexican legends Cruz Azul.  MLS must be doing ok if the class of the league is dominating the best teams from all the “actual” soccer nations in our region – on their home turfs, nonetheless.

Here’s a fact on which to chew: Major League soccer games averaged 16,675 fans per game in 2010.  This is roughly the same number of people that attend NBA and NHL games.  Now, I know, the NBA plays more than twice as many games, but it’s clear that MLS is on to something.  Their success lies in their ability to foster local followings and make them rabid about their teams, national press be damned.

Portland, Oregon

So what is the MLS doing right?  Many note the influx of veteran world-class talent into the league as a sign of success.  The arrivals of David Beckham, Thierry Henry,Freddy Ljundberg, Rafa Marquez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco were greeted with enthusiasm, to be sure.  But, what has truly bolstered the league is the influx of talent among the rank and file.  MLS has done a masterful job of scouting undervalued players across the world and using them to create a more fluid, quicker and robust style of play. MLS has realized that what matters is the health of the game, not necessarily the names on the back of the jerseys.  This is a key distinction that eluded the professional game in this country for decades.

The story of MLS’s predecessor, the NASL, has been told many times, and I won’t spend more than a few sentences on it here.  Its fatal flaw, though, was that it anchored its success on the condescending premise that star power and advertising would create interest.  The lesson learned: soccer’s appeal is based on the beauty of the game, not the promise of empty spectacle.  There are no frills in the United States’ current incarnation of professional soccer.  Just the game.

Which brings us to the United States national team.  For 4 days in June last year, soccer was part of the American fabric.  On these days, against England, Algeria, Slovenia and Ghana the United States national team took the field with aplomb and moxie.  Even Fox News and CNN extolled the virtues of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard.  Casual fans were swept up by the Hoosier-esque performance of our scrappy boys.  But we fans knew the truth:  World Cup 2010 was a disappointment.  We were so much better than that. The national team, heretofore over matched and under skilled, finally had the bodies and the athleticism to compete, but they played in their old style of overcompensation and fear.

An ethos of professionalism is developing though, and the national team must come to realize that it belongs among the world’s greatest.  Young players will lead the vanguard.  (Do not forget the name Juan Agudelo, by the way. I am allowed to say no more than that.  We soccer fans are subject to a gag order regarding Agudelo’s future, lest we jinx him as we have done Altidore, Adu, Davies, Edu and every other of our erstwhile saviors.)

Listen, I’m not saying everyone should suddenly love soccer.  Cult classics are always better than the mainstream stuff anyway.  But you should know that we aren’t just fooling ourselves.  We really are fans, and we don’t need to justify ourselves in your silly “I hate soccer” tirades (how tired are those getting, by the way?).  So, in the coming months, while everyone else watches Lebron James and Alex Rodriguez preen before the cameras, I will be watching MLS.

Seattle, Washington

This season figures to be gangbusters.  Real Salt Lake is clearly the class of the league.  Teams from Portland and Vancouver have just joined the league after playing independently in front of rabid followings for decades.  Kansas City has a beautiful new stadium.  Philadelphia looks like it’s on the way up.  To top it all off, the season just started.  So pull up a beer and a brat and let’s go Crew.  Toronto sucks, Colorado is overrated, may the Red Bulls and the Galaxy shut up and go away, may Charlie Davies score 40 goals but lose every game.  Go Crew.  Amen.  Hallelujah.

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  1. #1 by Chris on April 27, 2011 - 1:10 am

    HAHAHAH….Great article..My aplauds…But Lets get 1 thing staight….GO GALAXY !!!!!!

  2. #2 by Felix on April 27, 2011 - 8:47 am

    Nice write up, love soccer, hate lil Wayne… seriously, rap sucks!

    • #3 by Joe Bachman on April 27, 2011 - 10:23 am

      Felix – I can honestly say that I’ve never heard a lil Wayne song, but I will say this: I try to keep an open mind. Just because it’s rap doesn’t mean it automatically “sucks.” I know a lot of people whose opinion I respect who like the guy. He must be doing something right.

  3. #4 by publicminx on May 8, 2011 - 1:09 am

    Constant dripping wears away the stone ;)

  4. #5 by Gambeling Strategy King on May 31, 2011 - 6:34 am

    We in portland love our team we love the timbers. Go TIMBERs woot

  5. #6 by Jeff on July 10, 2011 - 6:01 pm

    Nice article! As an American, living the past 8 years in Germany, but growing up in Westerville and living for 5 years, a stones throw from Crew Stadium, I agree, 100%!!!

  6. #7 by notdillyduka on July 10, 2011 - 7:30 pm

    dilly duka for president

  7. #9 by Larry on July 18, 2011 - 10:01 pm

    Great article. Well, not bad. I tend to use more expletives when discussing the “soccer haters”, our National team’s ability vs. result, and MLS referee skillz.

    Regardless, I’d be interested to hear your thoughtful opinion on the recent Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl…from the perspective that I was there, and all my American MNT supporters were not. You missed getting whipped in the face by Mexican flags, douching with beer after beer, and the boo’ing by apparently ‘legal’ citizens of our National Anthem.

    Give that a shot :) Im still a little sore and am looking for perspective to prevent a life sentence for murder.

    • #10 by Joe Bachman on July 19, 2011 - 8:58 am

      Well, it stung, obviously. I think we were clearly outclassed in the second half. Again, though, what struck me is our predisposition to playing fearfully. We have 2-0 leads over Mexico and Brazil and then allow them to thrash us. Unacceptable. People talk about our need to gain class in the attacking third, but I think it’s more important that we get some moxie on defense. We miss Hejduk, streaky though he was. We need some boldness back there, some fire. Or else we’re going to lose some more 2-0 leads. Finally, as far as the “Mexican Fan” problem… I’ve been in Mexican dominated crowds, and it’s not fun. This coming from someone who finds the latent racism of some international competitions despicable. But, they aren’t going away until we start buying tickets. So…I suppose the answer is to keep doing what you’re doing. Keep showing up, keep cheering, and keep talking about the team to your friends. Finally, I wish that the cowardice shown by the USSF in having these games in LA, Dallas, etc., just so they can pack the stadium would go away. Bring ‘em up to Detroit. Now, I know that we’ve had games at Soldier Field and Foxboro, and we still couldn’t have anything approaching a majority, but at least it gives other fans an opportunity to see the team. Which, really, is what is going to send this thing over the ledge: exposure. We’re close, my friend. We’re close.

  8. #11 by Sean on November 26, 2011 - 10:28 pm

    Soccer is never…..EVER going to be more than a 6th major sport behind wnba. The 4 major still are ahead in attendance w out inflated Seattle stadium skewing attendance. Also the ratings tell a major story that other soccer fans don’t follow the playoffs. Lol a .8 rating. Continues to drop every year. Fans may go to a game and drink, which is the only way one can watch soccer is when drunk off their ass, but love ur sport. I live where we have all 6 major sports and I can tell ya know one cares about soccer. There is an attendance niche following but that is where it ends.

    • #12 by Joe Bachman on November 26, 2011 - 10:53 pm

      First of all, your comment that MLS Cup viewship “continues to drop every year” is flat-out wrong. Last year’s final drew .5 rating. Next, try googling “world cup ratings” sometime. You’ll see that 2010 ratings were up 50% from 2006. 18.9 million people watched US vs. Ghana. MLS just signed it’s richest TV deal ever with NBC. Fox now broadcasts soccer on prime-Sunday afternoon timeslots. Nearly every key television metric shows that more and more Americans are watchings soccer on tv. You might not like it, but more and more people love the sport.

    • #13 by Kejsare on November 26, 2011 - 10:54 pm

      Drop? [BTW, this article was written in April.]

      ESPN and ESPN2 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (311) are up 16% than 2010 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (268)

      Fox SoccerMLS regular season final avg. total viewers (70) are up 26% than 2010 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (56)

      TelefuturaMLS regular season final avg. total viewers (233) are up 10% than 2010 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (211)

      Nielsen

      Avg Attendance:
      2011: 17,870
      2010: 16,675

      7% increase.

      No one cares? Lets look at high school participation rates and compare them to baseball.

      2011 statistics for HS participation:
      Baseball: 471,025
      Soccer: 398,351
      Difference: 72,674

      In 1984 the difference between the two sports was 225,185.

      California HS sports participation for boys
      Baseball: 42,977
      Soccer: 47,078

      I can see it now, “Bunch of immigrants” counter argument

      Alaska
      Baseball: 710
      Soccer: 1,021

      Florida
      Baseball: 14,380
      Soccer: 14,486

      Lets keep going.

      North Carolina
      Basketball: 10,493
      Soccer: 10,493

      If you didn’t notice, NC’s example was BASKETBALL! In the land of UNC and Duke soccer is on par with another sport. Don’t be a hater, learn to love that this country can amazingly support a lot of sports well. We’ve got 4 of the best professional sports leagues in the world. Why not make it 5? [Not implying MLS should be EPL, but if it can be better than Eredivisie I'd be overjoyed]

  9. #14 by Sean on November 26, 2011 - 11:10 pm

    Lol bringing Olympics now? World cup did not draw more than hockey gold game in 2010 or 2002. When a country who doesn’t watch hockeeeey watched more than world cup. U can’t use Olympics or world cup to support soccer support. And to draw on recreational participation….get real. That logic would say the other sports are on the decline when super bowl just had biggest 2 rating years of 100 mill viewers. Men’s hockey dream nearly 30mill. NHL drew 8mill for the last Stanley cup rating. Biggest mls tv is low digit millions. NHL 1 billion…NBA x4 times as much. NASCAR draws more than mls. Soccer is never ever going to be more than what it is. Ok so ratings improved to a Laughable .8. A 0.8 rating lol. Attendance is skewed by Seattle which draws 36k wout is 16k and 5th. I must be in the minority when no mls rating or soccer rating has come close. Count me in with the nearly 299 million us viewers who did not watch. Lol a .8 with David beckham and la and u draw a .8. Lol

    • #15 by Kejsare on November 26, 2011 - 11:23 pm

      You’re still woefully challenged with numbers I see.

      You haven’t given a proper response to my numbers. Plus there was over 4.9 billion minutes of viewing on ESPN3.com during the 2010 World Cup. Those are not Nielsen ratings.

      Nor have you gotten in your head the difference between broadcast television and non-broadcast stations.

      2 is greater than 1. There, I’ll keep it simple for you. MLS is in a greater position than last year. Facts them be too.

      You talk of magnitudes difference but fail to see the trends.

  10. #16 by Sean on November 26, 2011 - 11:27 pm

    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/527198-mls-cup-tv-ratings-down-44-from-2009-why-mls-should-worry

    http://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2010/11/record-low-rating-for-2010-mls-cup/

    Oh and 2009 had a .9 for their championship so let me rephrase….Mls cup ratings never over 1.0 in past 10yrs. Again ur biggest market and ur biggest star and u can’t make it ur biggest rating ever never mind past 10 yrs….if the stars aligned perfectly and u can’t cash in….well nothing short of pathetic could be used to describe….again even mls fans of their teams didn’t watch….must go now…NCAA basketball is on….oh that too draws 5x more….that’s more than 1 mill plus…something mls can’t get 1%.

    • #17 by Joe Bachman on November 26, 2011 - 11:34 pm

      Sean, call me crazy, but you’re spending your Saturday night talking about soccer. People don’t do that if something’s not relevant.

    • #18 by Kejsare on November 26, 2011 - 11:36 pm

      Harvard v. Yale gets better ratings than MLS? Which channel is that on? They draw more than MLS? [Self-selected facts debate failure]

      A buffoon who doesn’t realize that sports fans are not exclusive of one another. Nor can see the writing on the generational wall.

      You still haven’t addressed my numbers. But before I do that, I have a logic mind bender for you:

      MLS fan is a soccer fan. A soccer fan is not always a MLS fan.
      A soccer fan is a sports fan. Sports fans like sports. A sports fan may be a MLS fan, NBA fan, NFL fan, NCAAFB fan, etc.

  11. #19 by Sean on November 26, 2011 - 11:34 pm

    Just posted trends….they are not good. Broadcast tv is free tv thus more viewers…so hmmm I wonder why mls isn’t on free tv…NFL NBA MLB NHL NASCAR NCAA football and basketball are…why because they can also draw a reg season game on cable which is 6x higher than ur championship cup game. Oh and UFC drew higher ratings on fox than soccer did. Guess that puts soccer well behind 8 sports. Imagine all ur billions and billions hits on espn.com and what did it gain ya……. .8.

    • #20 by Joe Bachman on November 26, 2011 - 11:36 pm

      MLS just signed a contract with NBC. You’ll able to catch games on network tv, as well as cable, in 2012, ’13 and ’14.

    • #21 by Kejsare on November 26, 2011 - 11:45 pm

      Your trends are show stagnation, not decreases.

      Attendance: increased.
      TV ratings: increased over 2010 [conclusion, MLS Cup is only followed locally, not nationally]
      Sponsorship: increased [see adidas deal with MLS]
      Stadiums: increased
      Soccer match access: increased [EPL and UEFA on broadcast TV, namely Fox]
      World Cup TV rights: increased [when in 2002 SUM paid for ESPN to host them, now Fox pays $400 million and Telemundo $600 million for them]
      HS participation: increased [baseball was stagnant over the last 10 years]

      [never cite Bleacher report as a legitimate place for news]

  12. #24 by Sean on November 27, 2011 - 12:05 am

    Looks like mls had to settle for 10 not 20. Again ur soccer rating and billions of online didnt translate into ratings. When u want to use epl or world cup ….still loses to Olympic basketball and winter Olympics. All that tells ya is fox overpaid as espn stated who can’t wait to get out of mls deal since again wnba draws as much. U can defend and spin it anyway u want….on the biggest stage a .8. Fox obviously didn’t want the mls and had to settle for versus a channel no one gets. Fox didnt spend that much on UFC and pulled in better ratings…..but guess the billions of viewers when US only had 300 million and was the topic on hand…still didn’t get ya anything…spin ur circular logic….but MLS is an 8th place sport. Oh and I played as a kid as do my kids play soccer today…as probably 100 millions kids who are adults today because it’s a cheap sport…but I’ll admit I watched the woman’s team this past summer…but only because it had to do more with USA support and to watch soto that’s it…

    • #25 by Joe Bachman on November 27, 2011 - 12:10 am

      That’s why they call it an “asking price,” my friend. However you dice it MLS just signed a tv deal that pays them between 300% and 400% more than their previous one. Even you can’t deny that’s progress.

  13. #26 by Sean on November 27, 2011 - 12:10 am

    Only on versus because no one wanted them…and versus is trying to grow it’s channel….10 million tv deal and la galaxy at 5 million on their tv deal….how much is the other sports tv deal? The NHL…..the freaking NHL ….hockey tv deal is 200 million on versus…..America doesn’t care about soccer ….specifically mls…besides the 300000k tv audience….the 297million Americans otherwise don’t……

    • #27 by Joe Bachman on November 27, 2011 - 12:17 am

      Sean – thanks for your opinions here. It’s obvious that you don’t like soccer and you have very strong emotions attached to it. All I can tell you is that soccer fans are going to continue to love the sport in spite of folks like you. There are more of us every day.

    • #28 by Kejsare on November 27, 2011 - 12:20 am

      From nothing to $10 million a year. Progress!!

  14. #29 by Sean on November 27, 2011 - 12:38 am

    Thanks Joe. Can’t argue with passion just those who are blinded in their passion kejasasre or misleading the facts about attendance such the author. Stay classy…unlike the other jack off who positioned an immigrant rebuttal or illegal aliens….I’ll leave this site to u soccer fans…no need to b pissing on ur parade

  15. #31 by tlas on November 27, 2011 - 3:43 am

    Let’s hear it for those great American traditions: social hypocrisy; monolingualism; bad diets; commercialism; crushing debt; awful politics; paranoia and some good, ol’ fashioned soccerhatin’.;)

    Anyway, I’m not sure if you’ve seen the ad from NBC Sports that featured a couple of Galaxy players, but who weren’t the ones always in the media. I thought it was decent, although it was just 30 seconds long.

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