Why is Soccer is the most popular sport in the world?
I’m no social scientist, but I’d suspect that there are socioeconomic reasons for it—it required nothing other than a ball and a field to play, making it possible to play literally anywhere that one can find a few square feet and a suitable amount of gravity. It can be played on the blacktop of the cities of Europe, in the savannahs of Africa, in the foothills of the Himalayans, and even in the Bluegrass of Kentucky. Even the poorest of the poor can play soccer, and some of the poorest nations in the world are among the elite in what the rest of the world calls Football.
Yet, somehow, it has become the Golf of team sports in America, played mainly by the suburban and the well-to-do. Perhaps it’s due to the English and European roots of the game—not many kids from the inner cities have had the privilege of watching a English Premier League match on television, much less in person. Maybe it’s cultural-while the best basketball and football players in the world tend to be black Americans, soccer is dominated by white Europeans and South Americans. There isn’t a lot of green space in American cities, either, and few urban schools field a varsity soccer team.
I was lucky in that I grew up in at the very edge of one of the wealthiest suburbs in Ohio—I technically lived in Columbus, but I lived in the Dublin City School district, and Dublin was big into soccer long before most Midwestern communities. I didn’t know much about soccer, if anything, when we moved there before I enrolled in Miss Poling’s 1st Grade class at the brand-spanking-new Riverside Elementary in 1983, but one day, it was announced that the next week would be “Dublin Soccer League Day” or something like that, and all the kids were invited to wear their jerseys to school. Well, I knew that I didn’t have a jersey like the other kids did, and I sure as hell didn’t want to feel left out, so I asked my mom to sign me up for soccer.
That was me, as a seven-year-old on the Dublin Soccer League Cheetahs. To put it bluntly, I was terrible. We didn’t know much about youth soccer back then, and we played 11-on-11 on a field that wasn’t too much smaller than a full-sized pitch. Even so, I was often the only player on our thirteen-person team on the bench, and when they played me, they stuck me in the back corner on defense.
However, the next year, I was placed on the Rams, and despite my total lack of talent, the Rams were very, very good. We won everything. We won our local league championship. We won the Greater Columbus city indoor championship. For four years in a row, we won every single tournament we entered. And I got better, embracing my role on defense as a stopper, and often being the only kid in the league to be “carded” with a yellow or red for aggressive play. And one day, they let me play goalkeeper, and I never left the goal after that, recording one clean sheet after another.
Even so, as I neared high school, the allure of cheerleaders, marching bands, and fifteen thousand people in the stands for Ohio High School Football outweighed my love for the game of Soccer, and I started all over in learning a new sport, and my progression was much the same: horrible as a Freshman, decent as a Sophomore and Junior, and a starter for a State championship team as a Senior. I never thought much about Soccer again.
Well, that is, until about three years ago, when I saw signs for youth soccer in my sleepy Kentucky town and I wondered if my son, Kevin, was old enough to play. Sure enough, he was, and we started down a path that has led him from being the smallest and least skilled kid to being such a good goalkeeper that the local youth league created a rule to prevent him from being able to play keeper 100% of the time—no other team had a chance while he was between the posts. His team lost the league championship game this year, 6-4, but only because they had to start another boy in goal, who spotted the opposing team a 6-0 lead before Kevin could get in there.
He’s moved on to club soccer now as the only seven-year-old on the U9 FC Kentucky team, and he loves it. So I decided to reward him and his little sister, who played U4 in the Spring and will be starting U6 in a couple of weeks, with a trip back to my hometown of Columbus and tickets to a Major League Soccer game. You can see us all decked out in Columbus Crew SC gear at the top of this page, and we all enjoyed a great game with a very high level of Soccer being played between Columbus and Toronto FC, thanks to outstanding goalkeeping on both sides, great attacking play from the Crew’s Kei Kamara, and a last-minute penalty kick from the USMNT’s own Jozy Altidore to tie the game at 3-3.
As we left the sold-out MAPFRE Stadium, which was the first soccer-specific professional stadium in America, I reflected on the MLS’ twenty-year history. The MLS only exists because it was a FIFA mandate—if the United States wanted to hold the World Cup in 1994, they had to make a first-tier professional league. Well, just calling something a first-tier league doesn’t make it so. The level of play for the first several years was pretty poor, and the league only stayed afloat thanks to a unique ownership structure and the support of people like Lamar Hunt, the owner of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
But now? Soccer is here to stay. The USWNT’s victory in the World Cup this year seems to have had a halo effect of sorts—I even saw some boys wearing the Women’s jerseys at my son’s Soccer camp last week. The MLS teams can hold their own against the South American and European teams, and even beat them on occasion. And while the USMNT had a terrible showing at the Gold Cup this year, they also beat the Netherlands and Germany in friendly matches earlier in the year.
More importantly, though, is that Soccer seems ready to capitalize on Football’s downturn. The PR surrounding Football’s concussion and injury issues has been a tad overwhelming as of late. One of my closest friends, who played in the NFL for nine years, has serious short-term and long-term memory issues. While Soccer has its own concussion problems, Football’s tend to be a little more obvious and blatant. As a parent of an undersized child, I would have a hard time allowing him to play football, and I’m not the only parent I know who feels that way. In reviewing the Crew’s roster, I saw a whole slew of players between 5’6″ and 5’9″, weighing between 140 and 170 pounds. You don’t have to be a roided out, jacked-up monster to be a great Soccer player. You just have to be tough, athletic, and in supreme cardiovascular condition. Of course, one can’t overlook the fact that there are hundreds of schools offering Soccer scholarships to young men and women across the country at all levels.
And Soccer is getting more diverse by the minute in this country as more and more people spill over our Southern border and bring their national game with them. However, they seem more likely to root for the U.S. than they did in years past—it used to be that US Soccer had to move USA-Mexico matches to the far northern reaches of this country to keep the Mexicans from having a home field advantage in our country. Now, there are several Hispanic players who have chosen to play for the USA instead of their Latin American homes. Perhaps the most famous male soccer player in America, Tim Howard, is a black man. As more of our young athletes gravitate toward Soccer over Football and Baseball, one can’t help but imagine what the next generation of Chris Pauls, Mike Conleys, and Stephen Currys might look like on the Soccer pitch.
If we are going to be a great Soccer nation, though, we have to get past the country club mindset. We have to bring the players from the barrios together with the players from the ‘burbs. Soccer is everybody’s sport around the world—it can be that way here, too.
And if you are still one of the Neanderthals who think that Soccer is “boring,” then I encourage you to buy your family some tickets, get in the car, and drive to your closest MLS stadium. You’ll find a stadium environment unlike anything in the NFL or NBA, an exciting game, and a relatively affordable experience. I bet you’ll go back for a second round. I know that my little guys can’t wait to go back, vuvuzelas and all.
Not to mention, Mrs. Bark makes a pretty hot soccer mom. So that’s a plus.
We’ve had Soccer revolutions here before. The Pele days of the Seventies. The post-World Cup frenzy of 1994. But I think this one is here to stay. All the conditions—the downward slide of Football, the diversification of America—are right. So go check out America’s new game. You’ll be glad you did.