Jay: No need to apologize! (I should be the one apologizing, for my belated reply.) America’s quadrennial soccer debate is in full swing, and I’ve been meaning to add my two cents (or more).
The debate has a Groundhog Day quality. Every four years, journalists ask whether this is the moment when soccer will finally break into the top tier of American sports. And each time, regardless of how the U.S. team performs, the answer is a resounding “No.” It used to be said that Brazil was the “country of the future” — and always would be. In that sense, soccer is the perennial “sport of the future” in the United States.
I don’t expect this to change anytime soon, for three main reasons.
(1) The American sports scene is like the menu at a New Jersey diner: It has just about everything. There are the Big Four professional leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball — plus college football, college basketball, golf, tennis, NASCAR, lacrosse, boxing, etc. Even the NHL, with all its diehard fans, is still often described as a “niche” or “regional” sport. Americans have only so much time to invest in watching and following sports; their attention can only be stretched so far. Australia offers a useful comparison: It, too, has a crowded and diverse sports landscape in which soccer is dwarfed in popularity by other pastimes (such as rugby, cricket, and Aussie rules football).
(2) As many commentators have observed, most of America’s top athletes don’t devote their energies to playing “the world’s game.” If even a small fraction of our best basketball players chose to focus on soccer instead of hoops, the U.S. national team could look much different. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons recently pointed to four NBA stars who, if they had channeled their prodigious athletic skills in an alternate direction, could potentially have electrified the soccer universe: Allen Iverson, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, and, of course, LeBron James. Imagine six-foot-eight LeBron going up for headers in the box — who would be able to stop him? For that matter, what if six-foot-four New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss (a multi-sport star in high school) had dedicated himself to soccer rather than football?
Unfortunately for U.S. soccer officials, boosting African-American participation in the sport poses a steep challenge. In other countries, Franklin Foer notes in his enjoyable 2004 book, How Soccer Explains the World, the game is predominantly a passion of the working classes, whereas in the United States, outside of various immigrant populations, the players and fans are drawn disproportionately from the middle- and upper-income groups. Competing at the highest levels of U.S. youth soccer typically requires a significant financial investment. This has made soccer a difficult sell in poorer communities. Altering its economic and cultural dynamics could be the key to uncovering a bevy of new American talent.
(3) Despite being a soccer enthusiast, I will admit that the sport can at times be mind-numbingly boring, and that the antics of many international players — the diving, the injury-faking — can be totally repellent. When played with skill and class, it lives up to its moniker as “the beautiful game.” But unless you grow up with soccer in your cultural DNA, it can be a hard sport to appreciate. World Cup matches, alas, do not always serve as the best advertisement, given the low scoring and the theatrical “flopping” by athletes pretending to be hurt. I usually suggest that soccer novices watch the English Premier League if they want to see an exciting and relatively fast-paced style of play.
Finally, a word about soccer and politics. Many years ago, the sport was embraced by yuppie parents eager for their children to play a game that provided good exercise and was relatively safe. It has long boasted high rates of youth participation across the country. But its association with snobbish Bobo liberalism — along with the way it has been championed by certain left-wing critics of American exceptionalism — has triggered an anti-soccer backlash among some conservatives.
Personally, I have many liberal friends who hate soccer and many conservative friends who love it, so I find the constant politicization of the game to be more than a bit silly. Just as I cringe when pro-soccer liberals paint anti-soccer conservatives as knuckle-dragging reactionaries, I also wince when anti-soccer conservatives depict the sport as somehow un-American. It’s well past time to end the phony culture war.