Friday, July 2, 2010

Do Americans Really Care About Soccer?

In honor of their win over Brazil, Hup, Holland, Hup!

I have asked myself this question a lot in the past, and I usually come up with the same answer.


Let me preface this topic with a given. I realize that soccer/football/futbol is the most popular sport in the world, therefore I'm not trying to take anything away from the sport itself or its fans. I love the World Cup. I love the Dutch. Everytime the World Cup comes around, soccer fans (and myself) get all worked up in the US, and for good reason. The World Cup is essentially the Super Bowl of soccer. But to the casual American soccer fan, the sport just doesn't matter.

We see this same phenomenon during the Olympics every two years (alternating between winter and summer games). From figure skating and snowboarding to gymnastics and swimming, Americans aren't fans of these individual sports (generally speaking). However, their rooting interest is largely based on national pride.

Apply this same reasoning to the World Cup. As excited as Landon Donovan's game-winning goal versus Algeria was, if he doesn't score that goal, the Americans would have headed back to the States a week early, and we would have moved on with our lives (soccer wouldn't have come back into the fold for most fans until the 2014 World Cup). On the surface, it appeared that fans were going to talk about that goal for months. I even thought that the popularity of soccer had turned a corner in the US. Then reality slapped me in the face.

Let's turn back the clock. Before the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, soccer was on life-support here. FIFA was largely criticized internationally for choosing the US as host site, due to the US having such a weak soccer team, not to mention a lack of a professional soccer league. The US team quieted some of those critics when they traveled to Trinidad and Tobago and won 1-0 on the final day of World Cup qualifying to earn a spot in the 1990 World Cup, the first time they'd qualified since 1950 (a loss or a tie would have kept them out of the World Cup). Although they lost all three of their group matches, the US team took a huge step towards preparing for the 1994 World Cup.

The Americans were not expected to advance past the group stage in 1994, but a stunning upset win over Columbia vaulted them into the second round. The Americans were eliminated by eventual champion Brazil, 1-0, but the US team had shown everyone that they weren't to be overlooked anymore. The 1994 World Cup also set attendance records that still stand in World Cup history.

After the US team qualified for the round of 16 in 1994, soccer's popularity in the US was on the brink. MLS had its inaugural season in 1996 (10 teams), and has now grown to 16 teams (3 new franchises will be added next season). However, thanks to the flameout of the US team in France during the 1998 World Cup, soccer's popularity hit a brick wall. The Americans' 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run attempted to make up for their dismal 0-3 showing at the 1998 World Cup, but they bookended their miraculous 2002 showing with another winless performance during the 2006 World Cup.

The challenge for the US soccer team is much easier said than done - If you win, they will come. The Americans have never advanced past the group stage in back-to-back World Cups, and they've only made it beyond the round of 16 once in the modern era. The quickest way for the sport to gain popularity in the US is to become successful, which is simply dictated by winning.

Obviously, soccer isn't a diehard sport in the US. It is dominated by the "Big Four" - American football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. We don't appreciate the details of the sport, for a number of reasons. It isn't high scoring. It isn't fast-paced. There is too much acting, plus it's not "physical" enough. There is too much subjectivity from the referee (when it comes to booking a player). The MLS is a second-class soccer league, compared to the UEFA leagues in Europe. The best American soccer players don't even play in the US.

The biggest factor contributing to the pace of soccer's growth in popularity, or lack thereof, in the US can be blamed on the competetive nature of the sport for children/teens. Until the 1980s, most high schools in the US did not offer soccer at all, and youth soccer programs were extremely rare until the 1970s. Thus, older generations of Americans living today grew up with virtually no exposure to the sport. According to some published reports, soccer is today's most popular youth sport. However, competetive soccer usually ends around high school where most kids prefer to play American football. In most areas of the US, high school soccer and American football are both played in the fall, so a student generally cannot devote time to both. The rise of sports like ice hockey and lacrosse, both similar in nature to soccer, are also drawing teenagers away.
Until star athletes like Tiger Woods and LeBron James chose to play soccer for a living, I don't think that soccer has much of a chance to supplant any of the Big Four in the US. Soccer has its niche, and that is fine with me.

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