The slow evolution of U.S. soccer fandom

The slow evolution of U.S. soccer fandom
September 11, 2013, 11:45 am
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The increase in U.S. soccer supporters is not a product of millions of kids playing the sport. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

The USMNT has qualified for seven straight World Cups, but has a long way to go before being considered a serious contender. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Watching the burgeoning fascination with the U.S. Men’s National soccer team is, in its own way, as much fun from a distance as it is from up close. The joy of discovery intermixed with the headiness of delusion, the making of new traditions that are mostly other people’s old traditions tweaked and updated, the uplift of knowing that one’s country owns the continent with the blinding jingoism of waving the flag where a tifo of Clint Dempsey would do just as well.

As the Yanks qualified for their seventh consecutive World Cup by delivering the Columbus Howdy to a long-dispirited Mexican side, the joy was, well, almost unrestrained. For the young, the home team was flexing its muscle; for the old, the laughable attempts of the prior 40 years to make soccer a meaningful contributor to the American sporting landscape had finally found a context.

[RECAP: U.S. tops Mexico to clinch World Cup berth]

And of course, the credit was being distributed far too widely and for too few valid reasons.

First, the sentence “the Yanks qualified for their seventh consecutive World Cup” tells you that as a global presence, the U.S. arrived well before this. Yes, North America is still at best the fourth best continent for the game, behind Europe, South America and Africa, and the U.S. still has years to travel before it can run with the big kids, but seven in a row is seven in a row. This has been done, again and again. It borders on cliché.

In other words, the revelation here is not so much about the U.S. team, but for the growing part of the population who cares about it. And the credit for that lies in non-traditional areas.

1. Fox Soccer Channel, RIP: For years, the little network provided a steady stream of English Premier League (now provided by NBC/Comcast, your new favorite network) and UEFA Champions League matches that appealed to the label-shopper in all of us. The best leagues, the best teams, the best players, with all the tradition and storytelling and quality broadcasters that come with it – it all made watching soccer less an eat-your-vegetables ordeal and more a these-guy-do-things-mere-humans-cannot-do thing. Americans understand greatness even in sports it does not care about, and players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane and Andrea Pirlo and Robin Van Persie and Steven Gerrard, etc., all translate easily to even an untrained eye.

1A. That, in turn, created an interest in ESPN and NBC that caught the audience and helped grow it not with soccer’s usual anti hook – the you-must-watch-this-for-the-good-of-society lectures from snobs and elitists -- but with this-is-fun-and-you’re-invited-so-grab-a-pint-and-join-us conviviality. Credit where due here.

2. The Internet grew up and became a steady provider of the rich veins of information and fun that international soccer can provide. We would not be putting Mario Balotelli on any magazine covers if his cavalcade of lunacies weren’t easily found with a burst of educated clickage.

2A. It also provided a context in which American fans could place their own experiences next to those of the world leaders in the sport. Where does the U.S. place next to Spain or Italy? Where does Landon Donovan fit in among the elite players of England? Could Michael Bradley thrive in Germany? Is Sir Alex Ferguson actually Bill Belichick, or is Belichick Ferguson, and if so, who the hell is the American Jose Mourinho? European soccer in particular now makes sense as more than just an abstraction because we have the access to make it so.

3. The American population has grown and changed and broadened, and soccer is less foreign to the eyes and ears of the young than it was when we were force-fed the bloated mistakes of the North American Soccer League and the first decade and change of Major League Soccer. The one died and the other nearly did because its main pitch was, “The rest of the world likes this, so why don’t you, damn it?” As a sales job, this ranks right up there, “Anthrax hot dogs! Get your anthrax hot dogs here! Get ‘em while they’re hot! Get ‘em while they’re anthrax-y!”

The NASL also became a one-team (New York Cosmos) league while letting the other 23 foot (no pun intended) for themselves, thereby insuring that almost the entire country would take the hint and say the hell with them all. MLS is in danger of doing the same thing by taking the best players on the market and putting them in a few selected cities (Beckham to Los Angeles, Henry to New York, Dempsey to Seattle) and in doing so creating separate classes of teams in the same league, just as the fools in NASL did. That leads to a lot of fan bases taking the hint and finding other ways to give a damn, especially when better soccer is a remote away.

4. As an aside, the new soccer boom is not a creation of MLS, and anyone who tells you otherwise deserves, and in a just universe would receive, a swift kick to the nethers. The boom happened from outside, and the MLS rode rather than created the wave. Moreover, it hasn’t ridden the wave in all markets; it is still a top-heavy league with too many laggards, and the league as a whole hasn’t captured the imagination, and is years away from doing so.

But America likes watching the big stage, and the World Cup is all that. The U.S. is still not a top-10 side, so escaping the group stage of the Cup is always a 50-50 proposition. That is the hardest bar to clear, because the Cup is an elitist’s paradise. Only eight countries have reached the final in the last 50 years, and 18 have reached the semifinals. The U.S. is currently placed 19th in the always hinky FIFA rankings, which generously puts the boys on the international bubble even with this, their most intriguing team ever.

Which is fine, as the fan base isn’t yet so delusional as to think this is a Cup-winning side. At least we don’t think it us. It’s still making its own fun on a lesser, but growing scale, taking some European and Hispanic influences and recrafting them for their own uses. Soccer is growing up in America not because it lectured and whined from above, or because all those millions of kids playing soccer finally paid off (millions of kids have been playing soccer for decades, but the evolution only happened recently), but because it rode a technological and cultural wave from below.

So when will soccer truly be an American phenomenon? One answer is decades from now, when it makes a Lionel Messi that decides to stay home. When it wins a Cup with the best side. When American football becomes too expensive and not safe enough to be a rational choice for sporting excellence.

And most of all, when it can make a Mario Balotelli out of whole cloth. We like a lot of things, but we may love the kind of guy who can score a lot and still find the time to burn down a million-dollar rental house by shooting fireworks out the bathroom window best of all.

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