Soccer and its Uneasy Place in the American Consciousness

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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.

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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.

26 Replies to “Soccer and its Uneasy Place in the American Consciousness”

  1. AvatarPaul Alexander

    America’s game is basketball! It’s higher paced soccer with fairer scoring. And for all you soccer fans, basketball is pretty much soccer with your hands. It is a gorgeous sport that is already played by Americans and created by an American and has a long history in our country. I do agree that the size issue is a big one, which does make soccer a more attractive pastime for people of all sizes, but that’s only because of our ‘win at all costs’ mentality. For example: why are middle school basketball teams playing on full size courts shooting at 10 foot high hoops? It’s like having a little league team playing on a major league field.

    These calls for soccer in the face of football I keep seeing ignore an already readily available, widely played, homegrown sport. And no concussions!

    Reply
    • AvatarBark M Post author

      America has already pretty much told its white population that it has no place at the highest levels of basketball—which is ridiculous, really. There’s no reason to think that a white European or South American would be genetically superior to a white American at basketball. They just don’t grow up being told that they aren’t welcome.

      Reply
      • Avatardal20402

        I attended a nearly all-white high school with state-competitive basketball teams (both girls and boys). I find this statement ridiculous. White people are perfectly welcome in basketball.

        Reply
        • AvatarBark M Post author

          Really? What percentage of NCAA Division I basketball players are white? What percentage of NBA players?

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          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

            I know you’re being rhetorical but the black/white percentage in the NBA is 78/17, with Latino and Asians making up the extra.

          • Avatardal20402

            That’s not because white people are “not welcome.” It’s because more black kids are more interested in basketball from earlier ages.

          • Avatardal20402

            You should provide evidence when making charges like “white people are not welcome.” I haven’t seen any. What I provided was an anecdote showing that white people, where I was, were quite welcome.

          • AvatarBark M Post author

            Hmm. Okay. See above for percentages of white people playing in the NBA. Then subtract the number of European and South American whites. You’ll come up with a number that is somewhere in the single digits.

          • Avatardal20402

            It’s a long way from “group is underrepresented” to “group is not welcome.” I don’t know your circumstances at all, but probability suggests that you live in a nearly all-white neighborhood, just because de facto segregation is still generally strong in all but a few places. I expect you would be offended, and very rightly so, if I told you that meant black people were “not welcome” in your neighborhood.

            White players appear in, and succeed in, the NBA, and no one has a problem with it. They’re just not a majority. And I think the reason for that is that more black kids grow up playing basketball, rather than soccer/lacrosse/hockey/what have you.

          • AvatarBark M Post author

            But it’s simply not true. Every white NBA star to come out of college in the last several years comes from a suburban or rural community. Hmm, could that be because they were not welcomed at schools with higher black populations?

            Think of the schools in the NCAA that recruit white guys. They all immediately come to mind. Duke. Wisconsin. Notre Dame. And that’s about it.

            The fact is that white kids are actively discouraged from playing basketball at every level. Look at Pat Connaughton from Notre Dame. He was described as a “gym rat” and a “hard worker” in college and “deceptively athletic.” Nobody ever talked of his athletic ability, other than that he could throw a 95 MPH fastball. But, lo and behold, he goes to the combine and vertical jumps 44 freaking inches, better than anybody else there. He also posted the best sprint and agility times. Oops. Guess he’s an athlete, after all. But despite those unbelievable numbers and a standout performance in the ACC and NCAA tournaments this year, he was drafted 40th overall.

            There is an anti-white bias in basketball, no question about it.

          • Avatardal20402

            “Every white NBA star to come out of college in the last several years comes from a suburban or rural community. Hmm, could that be because they were not welcomed at schools with higher black populations?”

            No, it’s because they don’t attend schools with higher black populations. White kids are just starting to be raised in significant numbers in the city. There are just not a lot of 22-year-old white athletes (or people) out there who grew up anywhere near black people, let alone attended predominantly black schools. Remember, de facto segregation really hasn’t changed much since the ’60s, except in a tiny number of gentrifying neighborhoods in wealthy cities.

            “The fact is that white kids are actively discouraged from playing basketball at every level.”

            I don’t see this, and I don’t think the evidence that you’re citing adds up to it.

          • AvatarBark M Post author

            Okay, believe what you want. 🙂 I can’t “prove” that AAU coaches prefer black players, or that white kids are socially discriminated against by black kids on the basketball court.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

            The plural of anecdote is not data, but…

            http://isteve.blogspot.com/2011/06/disparate-impact-data.html

            “I had a friend in college who went to a high school that was 60% black, and he told me that his high school basketball coach wouldn’t even let white guys try out. And yeah, I know that it’s all about the AAU circuit these days — but if you can’t even make your high school team (or you’re on the end of the bench), why would you even bother trying out for an AAU team?”

  2. AvatarPaul Alexander

    Well, if we’re talking at the professional level, then about 99.5% of us are shit of luck genetically. Pros is all about appreciation the sport at it’s highest level, in my opinion. Therefore, I don’t care who’s playing at that level, whether they ‘identify’ with me or not is immaterial, I want to see the sport at it’s highest level.

    So if MLS is only about replacing what I spectate with someone more relatable, you can count me out. Not interested. I want my high level athletes to be super human, which is what will happen with soccer anyway once it becomes popular and those 6’5″, 200 pound WR’s start playing winger instead. Physical superiority is taking over every sport. So the genetics you refer to will quickly remove that benefit of soccer. Look at the size of the defenders they have in European soccer now, those dudes would be big in any sport.

    Besides, your kids were into soccer before MLS. There was no need to sell it to them, they wanted to play. That’s where I think it should be happening anyway, not in some strange, nebulous national conversation over the benefits of this or that sport. Rather like how I got into basketball (and every other sport I played): watching my dad.

    Reply
    • Avatareverybodyhatesscott

      The German team seems to do ok without 6’5″ wide receiver types. Being 6’5″ isn’t as beneficial in Soccer as it is in a sport like Basketball or football.

      And those pro soccer players are still superhuman athletes

      Reply
  3. AvatarCameron

    I became a soccer fan over a year after moving to Seattle, mostly out of civic pride for my new city, the rest due to knowing of a few voice actors in Vancouver who were Whitecaps fans. In fact, my first-ever MLS match — and first-ever soccer match, for that matter — was the Cascadia Cup match between the Sounders and the Whitecaps, with the Whitecaps came out on top.

    Though my Sounders lost, I could not have picked a better match to attend. From the supporters groups unfurling their tifo before the match, to seeing both teams led out by the little ones as the MLS entrance music played, to the scarves going up and the chants echoing throughout CenturyLink Field, my heart was touched by it all.

    The developing love carried over into indoor soccer with the (late and disgraced) Seattle Impact FC of the Major Indoor Soccer League. Though it stumbled due to the owner’s past as being a dick who thought with his dick, I did return to Showare Center when the long-running Tacoma Stars bought the Impact (and the team’s pathetic win-loss record), and finished out the rest of the schedule as best as the team could; they played much better in the Western Indoor Soccer League, taking home the league championship with a perfect 10-0-0 record.

    I would also get behind the Seattle Reign FC of the National Women’s Soccer League, but Hope Solo’s troubles off the field make it difficult for me to consider visiting the pitch near the Space Needle, even if she is the best goalkeeper around.

    Finally, with the introduction of both Sounders FC 2 and Louisville City FC into the growing United Soccer League, my love for the sport grew larger. I’ve been to nearly every S2 home match — including the two U.S. Open Cup matches between Kitsap Pumas FC and Portland Timbers FC 2 — and hope to one day pay a visit to my old Kentucky home to see an LCFC match at Louisville Slugger Field (and again when the team has its own soccer-specific pitch).

    I may still have little knowledge on the ins and outs of the game, but I will continue to watch for so long as I’m able.

    Reply
  4. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    I wonder how many people who think soccer has a lot of action also think that baseball is boring. I guess it matters how much you know about the sport.

    Speaking as a guy who can follow a curling match, the argument that soccer is boring has some validity. A ninety minute game with no more than a handful of scoring chances and even fewer goals is going to be boring to most Americans who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the game .

    Now hockey? Hockey is soccer on ice with sticks and contact.

    Reply
    • AvatarCGHill

      Personally, I get a kick out of watching Cameron live-tweeting soccer matches. Admittedly, I’d hang on her every word anyway, but her sheer enthusiasm is downright infectious.

      Reply
  5. AvatarItsMeMartin

    I also wondered why soccer has never managed to gain much popularity in the US. The potential fanbase has always been huge – you have a lot of immigrants from countries in which nothing even comes close to soccer in popularity, Mexico being the obvious example. Speaking of them, I can understand why first-generation immigrants would not be interested in American soccer – they would remain loyal to the teams from the countries from which they came and would probably prefer to watch matches of those foreign teams on the TV rather than get involved with local teams. Why the rest of them hasn’t warmed up to American soccer, I have no clue. Even the attempt to capture some of that Mexican support by establishing Chivas USA didn’t work out as intended.
    Luckily, the product on offer has improved quite significantly during the past several years, and it seems to be improving still. I remember watching MLS some time around 2010; the matches were roughly as interesting as your average English or French midtable scramble but the playstyle of most teams was relatively simple, and – what I, a connoisseur of the fine art of defending, rued the most – the teams were often top-heavy and attack minded, with defense often appearing to be an afterthought. The league has come a long way since then and while I might not watch as much soccer as I used to, I would hazard a guess that MLS has already surpassed most second-tier European leagues in terms of quality of play and the entertainment factor (even though it still lags behind in terms of discovering top talent), and the teams, like you mentioned, are able to give teams from the top European leagues a run for their money.
    Even though many MLS teams still rely on foreign stars to shape their play, even that aspect seems to be improving. Instead of signing exclusively well over-the-hill veterans looking for one last payday before they ride off into the sunset, an increasing number of marquee singings are guys much closer to their prime, with at least a few good years still left in them. Just look at Giovinco – I think he could walk into the majority of teams from the European top-5 of leagues and not look out of place. Another thing that gives a testament of the MLS’ strength is how long its stars stay in the league. It’s common for aspiring leagues to attract well-known players for a season, after which said stars become disillusioned by their surroundings, the quality of the play, the lack of professionalism, and leave for more familiar locales, paying no mind to the hefty paychecks on offer in the banana republics of soccer. The stars of MLS often stay for longer, which indicates not only the professionalism of the infrastructure of American soccer and the power of attraction of America as a country, but also the changing perception of the league itself: joining the MLS seems to be seen as a sound career choice for veterans of soccer rather than a thing you do when you want to indifferently grind out one more year just to boost your retirement fund.
    Anyway, I’m glad that you and your children enjoy soccer as for all the money sponsors pour into the sport, there is still no substitute for actions of people like you who are willing to give unorthodox disciplines a try. Even more importantly, you should be proud of getting your children interested in something real, physical, instead of choosing the easy way out and tossing them a black rectangle of your choice and telling them to have fun. We might be living on the opposite sides of the globe but I bet that the latter is becoming the standard mode of parenting in Poland and in Kentucky alike.

    Reply
  6. Avatarjz78817

    “I also wondered why soccer has never managed to gain much popularity in the US.”

    I’d wager it’s because baseball had taken off in this country by 1850, before modern Association Football had solidified. We already had our “national sport” long before soccer had cascaded through much of the world (though a lot of that due to colonialism.) Baseball also is one of those games that kids could gather and play with minimal equipment. A bat (or even a heavy stick,) a ball, and gloves.

    Reply
  7. AvatarDisinterested-Observer

    I think part of the reason soccer is popular in poor countries is that unlike contact sports (even basketball) you are much less likely to suffer a serious injury.

    Reply
  8. Avatarmichal

    watching soccer is boring, so is baseball.

    Watching a football game, at the game can get dull too, Theres no hiding all the down time with replays.

    Reply

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