Soccer is American: Breaking Barriers

In the past few years I have found a new love in my life.  This love is powerful and consuming as it has determined my weekly schedule and wiped out life-long sporting relationships.  I have fallen in love with soccer.  As a boy and young adult I consistently took a passing interest in soccer.  I appreciated the game and the skill of the players.  This interest was less than acquaintanceship, more like a friendly face that looks familiar with no concrete reason or attachment.  I wonder why it took me so long to embrace the sport.   Now that I have broken through the invisible barrier that kept me from soccer for all those years, let's take a closer look at why there is resistance to soccer in America and the natural obstacles that stand in its way.

Americans have a tendency to dismiss sports that are foreign.  We are proud of our national sports.  Too often we come up with excuses that diminish foreign sports instead of pronouncing the real reason for the disinterest.  When a sport is celebrated in foreign cultures we feel the need to tear it down so we don't feel left out.  All of my life I have heard derogatory statements and jokes about soccer.  Sports radio hosts question the manhood of soccer players and even soccer fans.  The haters push soccer to the margins so we don't have to acknowledge or accept it, and they can stay safe in nostalgia.  Whether this is a symptom of mass media and pop culture or a xenophobic trait that comes from a collective group, it's ok.  This exposition is not an attack, and it won't become psychological self help advice.  Let's take an honest look at the sport of soccer in America from a practical fan's perspective.

Something new is difficult to embrace.  Take a look at your life.  The world is spinning, time is turning, and there is nothing you can do to slow down the inevitable end.  It is natural to reject something that is foreign to protect your precious time.  So many Americans just don't have time for soccer.  Our culture has developed a mechanism to help us avoid embracing a new sport.  The diss and diminish.  Soccer is boring!  There is no scoring in soccer!  Soccer is not physical.  Soccer is filled with faining and faking wimps.  Before we address these criticisms, let's take a look at some of the legitimate reasons why soccer is resisted in America.

Soccer is confusing.  When you pass by the window of a department store they have a display that is pleasing to the eye and easy to understand.  If the display is done right it draws you in and speaks an intended message.  When you take a glimpse at soccer as a passing interest it is like being hit with electronic dance music while watching the endless crowd in Times Square.  There is simply too much information to process as a passing interest.  The beauty of soccer is masked by the complexity of its organization.  From UEFA Champions league to the African Cup of Nations to MLS Soccer to CONCACAF Gold Cup to Copa America to the EPL, acronyms are thrown at you like a foreign alphabet.  It's no wonder soccer is dismissed so quickly by so many Americans.  The organization itself is so hard to understand.  The simplicity of the game itself is overshadowed by the organizational mess that is a culmination of its immense global popularity.

The MLS is not world class football.  There is a phrase that is used in soccer to describe the pinnacle of talent in the sport, "world class."  The American soccer league, Major League Soccer, is not at a world class level.  The easiest way for an American to see soccer on the television or in person is to view an MLS game.  A fan of Major League Baseball would never send someone to a double A league game as a representation of their favorite sport.  The MLS may be a professional league, but the level of play has yet to reach world class levels.

A.M. is not primetime.  The best professional representation of soccer is on very early in the morning in America.  The very best soccer in the world (Champion's League) is on TV smack dab in the middle of the work day during the week.  World class soccer is tough to watch during most American's weekly schedule.  England, Spain, and Germany are 8 & 9 hours ahead of the west coast of America.  Further exacerbating the problem, soccer is played primarily during the winter months so the games are played during the day at local time versus our American way of producing content for evening viewing.  That's right, the best soccer in the world might be played at 4am on the west coast of America.

We don't have enough time!  Possibly the largest reason for resistance to soccer in America is a lack of time.  Whether we realize it or not, the greatest country on the planet is a large machine that grinds us all into its economic and social apparatus.  Each person struggles to create space in their life just to simply enjoy their time. Seeking passion and creativity has become a scheduling conundrum in American culture.  Our society has grown so quickly through innovation and advancement in communications that our time is fought for fiercely by our own home grown creations.  From music concerts to fantasy sports, there is an endless list of entertainment possibilities to spend our precious time.  It is easy to dismiss soccer as a foreign concept because of how many options and impulses that each American is bombarded with 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.  Soccer may be the king of the globe, but it is like a start-up sport in America desperately trying to gain traction in a sand dune of eyeballs and possibilities.

Those four attributes represent the main reasons and obstacles why soccer has struggled to take off and thrive in America historically.  However, pop culture and established media types would have you believe the main reason is the game itself.  Misinformation and ignorant rants replace analytics and logic when it comes to hating on soccer in the mass market.  Here are the main examples distributed throughout the years.

Soccer is boring.  This attack embodies the logic of someone who has not given soccer a chance, and yet it implies the perpetrator is giving an educated analysis.  Soccer can be boring, absolutely.  There are matches that never find a flow or impetus, but isn't that true of every sport?  Have you ever watched an NBA game early in the season, or any NBA game in the 2nd quarter for that matter?  Even the all mighty football has stinkers that fall flat with intensity (I'm looking at you Thursday night NFL).  Soccer is like any other sport:  The match-ups, the timing of the season, and injuries matter to the outcome and visceral experience.  However, soccer has an advantage that is lost in the ignorant "soccer is boring" analysis.  Soccer has no time outs or breaks beyond half time!  When the game starts, the action is on with no breaks.  More importantly, televised soccer has no commercials!  How much do you value your time?  How long is an NFL game from start to finish?  How long is the last 5 minutes of a NBA game?  I know when I decide to watch a soccer match that I am into it for 105 minutes (90 plus halftime and extra time).  This format allows the game to flow, and the it has the opportunity for spontaneous action at any moment.  I cannot watch an NFL game anymore without recording it on the DVR, and a remote control in my hand to fast forward.  The stops in the action and the commercial breaks are too much.  I value my time too much.  Soccer has an advantage in its format.  It is more fan friendly.  Because of the global nature and popularity of soccer, there are so many more opportunities for great match-ups internationally and professionally.  Barcelona vs Real Madrid, Argentina vs Brazil, Arsenal vs Chelsea, United States vs Mexico, Manchester United vs Manchester City.  There are so many more leagues and organizations to peak your interest and draw you in.  For example, my son is Basque.  There is a great team in La Liga (Spanish Soccer League) named Athletico Bilboa, a team focused on recruiting and fielding mostly Basque players?  So I'm not here to tell you that soccer is not more exciting than any other sport, but it does have a better format and broader canvas than any other sport.  Don't let flippant hate keep you from looking closer.  The hater might say it's not the format, it's the game itself that is boring.  Every minute of every soccer game is a free flow of spontaneous action that can inspire excitement at any moment.  Excitement is the edge of spontaneous and unpredictable outcomes between athletic combatants.  The game of soccer is the definition of excitement.  The "boring" critique is lazy and flies in the face of reality.

Top athletes don't play soccer.  This is very true, but only in America.  The best athletes accross the globe play soccer.  As soccer becomes more popular in America, the top athletes will follow.  Black athletes don't play soccer like they didn't play golf or tennis.  Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters will guarantee larger participation from the black community in the future for their respective sports.  Every year, more parents are protecting their children by putting a soccer ball at their feet instead of a helmet on their head.  It is only a matter of time before more of the top athletes in America grow up playing soccer.

The game is corrupt.  Soccer detractors point to the political scandals of FIFA as an excuse to dismiss the sport.  The top level of the global organizing body is corrupt with bribery and embezzlement.  Top officials use their positions as a perpetual money grab.  Corruption within the organization has allowed rumors of match fixing and referee intimidation to prosper as rule enforcement has lost its bite.  These are true problems with the global game of soccer.  However, when you try to organize a game across every continent and incorporate every language & people, corruption is a natural bi-product.  There is no one government that can regulate a global game.  I'm not conceding this argument; I'm simply being honest about a real problem.  However, every major American sport has a problem with corruption.  Baseball has steroids.  League officials looked the other way while athletes juiced up for the sake of invigorating the sport.  For some reason Americans don't want their baseball players to take performance enhancing drugs, but we look the other way when grid-iron gladiators play with the pigskin.  Football has CTE.  Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is an enormous scandal that stretches over decades.  The corrupt back story on the NFL's attempts to keep CTE out of major newspapers is now coming to light.  Basketball has gambling referees and frozen envelopes.  NBA referees control and effect professional basketball games to the point that you wonder if the pay-offs are larger than the pay checks.  Corruption is a modern problem with all sports leagues.  Soccer is not immune, but it shouldn't be punished unnecessarily in America where we have so many skeletons in our sport's locker.

Soccer players are faining wimps.  Once again, this critique comes from a 10 second video clip, and not from in-depth analysis.  Soccer is actually a very physical sport.  The players have weapons bolted to their feet, and are capable of using them in flying challenges for the ball.  Soccer is played in the air far more than a novice may think.  Heads clash when the ball is up for grabs in the air during a 50-50 challenge.  The ball winner is usually the player capable of meeting the ball with their head at the highest point.  These mid air challenges create collisions and crashes that any sporting fan should respect.  Recently a player came off the field during play to get staples punctured into his head to close an open head wound.  He jogged back into the field of play once the staples were applied right there on the sideline.  The "faining wimp" argument comes from the physical nature of the game and how hard it is to referee.  In the past players have been rewarded with fouls for taking a dive.  FIFA has addressed this issue, and has created a counter to faking fouls.  It's called simulation, and a referee can award a yellow card if they think a player is diving on purpose.  The English Premiere League has taken the lead among professional leagues by actively enforcing this new tool for referees.  Whenever you have an officiated game, you will have players that try to manipulate the enforcement of the rules.  The best basketball player in the world is a notorious flopper.  This is a sporting problem, not a soccer problem; yet soccer is being proactive in addressing the issue.

The popularity of soccer in  America is like a pyramid.  Experienced fans of soccer are at the top of the pyramid.  Each person they teach the subtleties and language of the game is a new layer in the pyramid.  It's a grass roots movement that now has communication tools that will accelerate the building of the base.  Friends have taught me the game I only played as a child.  The soccer community is a somewhat closed small group, dare I say snobby.  The more new blood in the American soccer tent will break through the closed ranks and share soccer with an even broader community.  This break through is occuring right now, but the pyramid of popularity has only begun to be built.  One expert believes there will be more viewers of English Premiere League soccer in America than in England within 5 years.  The English Premiere League viewership on NBC networks has increased by 150% this year.  La Liga and the top German Professional League are now televised by American cable channels also.  Soccer is being promoted in America by a grass roots movement of fans that are helping victims of the old stereotypes and mass media misinformation understand the game better.  If you cut through the clutter, noise, and confusion, you will find one of the best sports on the planet.