With the news that Major League Soccer is all set for its fifteenth season, the hardcore American soccer fan can once again feel the kind of tempered enthusiasm that only comes with another year of professional soccer in the USA. Tempered because while he yearns to see a pro quality game; he knows deep down that the MLS doesn’t quite give him that. While he’ll proudly pile his kids into the minivan to see the season opener, inherently he knows that this league is still a fragile infant, that it is one wrong move away from becoming the NASL. Why won’t soccer succeed here? He thinks. What is it about the US that is so different from the rest of the world? The reasons come piling in and at first glance some of them make a lot of sense.
1. American’s Don’t Understand Soccer
A commonly heard phrase that has been an excuse and a complaint for soccer fans and soccer detractors in America for years. The argument paints the land as one that loves its football, baseball and basketball; a country where soccer is not taught, at least not by legitimate coaches. But the truth is, while that argument may have been valid thirty years ago, it is not the case anymore.
Soccer is the most popular youth sport in America and has been so for thirty years. If you walked into a bar today and asked all the patrons who have played soccer at some point in their childhood to raise their hands, you’d be shocked. Millions and millions of people not only know what soccer is, they know the rules and have played the game. They know because for the last 40 or so years, concerned mothers have wanted their kids to play a “safer” sport than football or baseball. This can most easily be demonstrated by answering this question, do you understand soccer? There are 300 million people in this country and enough will answer yes to that question to ensure that soccer could work.
So it’s not a matter of understanding, it is a matter of interest.
2. There is No Money in American Pro Soccer
This reason for soccer failure has been used countless times. It goes with the whole idea that a parent is willing to spend some money to get their kid in a healthy outdoor activity, but that same adult will not blow their entertainment money to go see a soccer game. Not when they have other things to do. Since that is the case there is an accepted sentiment that there is not enough money on the “entertainment tree” for a robust and successful pro soccer league.
Again, that is not entirely true. There is money in America to support a world class soccer league because the United States is a land of immigration. Granted, most of those immigrants have been in the Americas for a few generations, but there are millions of people who have emigrated from soccer loving areas in Europe and the rest of the Americas within the last two generations. These people and many more who played as kids would definitely spend the money… if the product were good enough.
3. Soccer is Boring
Perhaps the most oft-used argument against a successful pro soccer league in America is that Americans find soccer to be boring. They hate low scoring games, they hate ties and they hate all of the “diving”. Since soccer can have these things, the sport is written off as too slow and uninteresting.
Well, the fact is that even though this is the most popular excuse for an American hatred of soccer, it is the least accurate. Americans don’t hate soccer, they don’t even ignore it because the sport is boring (despite what they might say). They ignore it and they hate it because the team that plays in their local stadium is boring and because that team would get its ass handed to it by 100 other teams located an ocean away. American’s love low scoring games, a pitcher’s duel in Baseball is considered great drama! Also, don’t forget that a soccer game with a final score of 3-1 (very common) is equivalent to a football game where the end score is 21-7 (also very common).
The problem is not the entertainment value of the sport, it’s the entertainment value of the league as it is right now.
4. There are Too Many Distractions
America is the land of entertainment, we have Hollywood, Broadway, monuments, landmarks, football, basketball, baseball and the best food from everywhere. Apart from that, soccer fans have the best leagues in the world (EPL, Serie A, La Liga, etc.) right on their television. With all of that to take our attention and free dollars, how could anyone possibly think that soccer could make it in America?
Again, the problem is not the competition from other entertainment sources, it is the quality of what we have in our back yard. Europeans have movies, amazing theater, cricket, rugby, restaurants and the like too. They just choose soccer first because the athletes and the show they provide are incredible.
5. The Best Players Won’t Play Here
The greatest soccer in the world is played either in Europe or during the two great International tournaments, the World Cup and the European Cup. No one denies that, that’s where the best players can be found and that’s where they make their fortune. So it is widely accepted that we will never get those players while they are in their prime soccer playing years.
Simply put, it’s not entirely true. They would love to play here. This is the land of movie starlets, freedom and financial opportunity. Almost everyone wants to live here, world class players just can’t because they need to worry about their legacy and financial security. The unlikely advantage that US soccer has though, is that the legacy part of the equation is easier than you might think. Soccer is not the same as basketball or football. In basketball, the only league where your stats and history matter is the NBA, it’s all that matters. But in soccer, there are tons of great leagues and no less than three different elite leagues, so your stats and history are measured differently. Most lasting legacies are built at the World Cup, and you can play in any league and still play in the World Cup. The financial part is the tough one, the MLS league owners have no assurances (aside from a soccer fan’s blog) that investing $200 million each on the best rosters in the world would turn a profit. But if the day ever comes when the New York Red Bulls offer $20 million a year to players like Messi, players like Messi will definitely listen.
In the US, pro soccer is a funny sport. The hardcore fans watch the games and support the league, but many do so out of a sort of obligation. They truly love the sport, so they watch it. They desperately want it to succeed, so they sign their kids up for the local youth league, coach their teams, referee and volunteer. They hope against hope, that all of this effort will result in better young players and a better league. Then one day, maybe, the quality of pro soccer in the US will make it to the point where those same games become ultimately compelling and the obligation turns into genuine interest.
Can soccer succeed in the US? There are several reasons why America’s fan has been told that it cannot, but that doesn’t stop him from supporting it, because inherently he knows something else too; those reasons at there core are complete and utter baloney.