With the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team defeating the Dutch, the Germans, and the U.S. Department of Justice shaking up FIFA, the United States is having its best stretch in Europe since 1945. As a mid-to-late-20’s millennial my interest in soccer is largely tied to happenstance free time during big matches and the availability of beer when said matches are on. I have a passing memory of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final since I’m fairly certain it was the first time I had ever seen a sports bra and I vaguely remember watching some games during the 2006 World Cup back during my regrettable “soccer is dumb and hookah is awesome” phase. College is a time for experimentation and while some students fall into the spider’s web of drugs or hookups I fell into the spiders web of soccer. I was drawn in by victories over Mexico, Spain, and Algeria, close defeats to Brazil, that tie against England we all treated as a victory, and an incredibly frustrating loss to Ghana in what might be the hottest bar I’ve ever been to. This interest continued to post-grad with US wins over Italy, Germany, and Mexico and then the 2014 World Cup.
So in ten year’s time I’ve gone from a Hank Hill mindset towards soccer to embracing the game with far more excitement than I do the NBA or a mid-season NFL Sunday when everyone is on bye and the Texans are playing the Jaguars at noon.
This is amazing considering I know little about the sport. I know Lionel Messi is good even if his tax evasion skills are not on par with his footwork. I know Manchester United are the New York Yankees of the sport and Chelsea are a modern Russian oligarch owned version of the Red Sox if their big spending actually translated to wins. Brazil is to soccer as Alabama is to football (Maré do rolo!). England sits as a stately European version of Michigan, remembering past glories and hoping this coach is the one to bring them back. Both even have disputes with the Pope, whether that be the Pope that sits on a throne in the Vatican or the pope that sits in an office in South Bend.
I also know that the United State’s claims to fame in the sport are largely based in the women’s game. On the men’s side of the pitch the success is lacking. We have a smattering of (really) old Olympic medals, a third place finish in the inaugural world cup, and some upsets of #1 ranked teams, and five CONCACAF Gold Cup Championships. Considering the only major opposition in North America is Mexico and the tournament includes Caribbean island teams and the occasional invited South American team that sends a B-squad that lays waste to all but the US and Mexico’s varsity squads…you’ll forgive me if CONCACAF strikes me as kind of an international soccer Mountain West Conference. Like the Mountain West Conference, the United States and Mexico strike me as a soccer version of Boise State or late-2000’s TCU. Respected in their own right and capable of downing elite teams when they push all the chips to the center of the table but definitely not allowed to be in truly elite category that seems populated these days by Germany, Brazil, and economically failing Mediterranean countries.
Despite this the popularity of soccer is growing exponentially in the United States. World Cup ratings have increased every four years and major international friendlies, the Gold Cup, and World Cup qualifiers do surprisingly well, generally surpassing baseball, sitting on par with the NBA, and surpassed only by the leviathan that is Fútbol Americano. More people are playing soccer than ever before in the U.S. and most importantly the powers that be actually give a Wondolowski about whether or not things do well. MLS is new but it’s not a fad like previous leagues and some teams like Seattle and Portland receive more support than some MLB teams get. Soccer specific stadiums are being woven into the fabric of major US cities. The women’s national team continues to be elite and the men’s team has improved into an entity that every nation has to take seriously at every level. Had the United States been awarded the 2022 World Cup over Qatar the Department of Justice surely would not have pressed FIFA like they have in recent weeks.
This all begs the question, what now? Is the United States finally a full fledged soccer nation? Should the other sports be shaking in their cleats?
Yes and no.
Unlike many other countries the United States has an athletic and entertainment infrastructure that can support multiple sporting entities. Some countries, mostly in Europe, also Australia, have this capability too. Most countries either culturally or financially choose to support soccer alone or soccer and cricket or soccer and basketball, etc. Soccer is light years away from competing with football and it cannot stand toe to toe with the day to day financial power and viewership/attendance draw of MLB or NBA. Are we a soccer nation? Sure we are, the same way we are a baseball, basketball, and football country too. The same way Louisville is a basketball and horse racing town, Indianapolis has a culture of auto racing, or Detroit is a hockey town. We just happen to be a football nation first, no different than Canada being a hockey nation or India being cricket crazy. The 2018 and 2022 World Cups are scandal ridden but if the US Men qualify for them the ratings will likely build as they have been for years. The MLS is stable and growing and I’d argue the cost and fan atmosphere already surpass that of the NBA and NFL whose ticket cost is higher and whose atmosphere is either too corporate to be truly fun or way to hooliganish for normal people, much less families, to consistently enjoy.
Most importantly, soccer has an ace in the hole the other sports can’t really touch and that’s the spectacle of it all. More than any single sporting event, people tune in for spectacle, especially if its in conjunction with sports. The Superbowl does not routinely get amazing ratings because its the best game of the year but rather because its a spectacle that features a football game. Superbowl ads, the halftime show, Superbowl parties, all of these things add up to turn the game into an event and that’s when people really start paying attention. The only time this happens with basketball, baseball, or hockey is the Olympics or an All-Star game and not nearly at the same level. Football does a great job of marketing some of its assets as events such as the draft and the combine but it can only do so much since the violent nature of the game limits the games that can be played and international competition is nonexistent. Soccer on the other hand can sell tournaments, travel, friendlies, and a well known women’s national team in addition to the day to day stuff like Premier League and MLS. It also caters to an increasingly young and non-Anglo American population and it caters to desperate TV execs who love sporting events that garner big ratings with young crowds and last a tight two hours from opening kick to stoppage time.
Soccer definitely is not a fad and the game is here to stay and grow with this generation. It won’t kill the other sports (it might relegate baseball to NHL status but that’s on baseball and not on soccer) and the draw of spectable, patriotism, and internationalism is extremely appealing to many. The real question is, can this momentum translate to turn the U.S. into an elite soccer power? That remains to be seen.