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.
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.
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.
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.