I’m a soccer fan.
For the past two weeks in the United States, that confession has not resulted in the normal response of sneers and snarky remarks. It has been exciting to see our country rally behind the US Men’s National Team as they sought the role of giant-killers at this year’s World Cup. Seeing footage of massive “watch parties” around the country and having multiple soccer-related conversations over the past two weeks made me hopeful for the growth of soccer within the United States, where its popularity had previously ranked it between competitive hotdog eating and jr. high girl’s basketball.
But, alas, the World Cup journey came to an end on Tuesday evening as they lost to Belgium. In the aftermath of the soccer craze in America, there has been a great deal written about the future of “the beautiful game” in our country. There are some saying that we have just entered a new age of soccer in America, a time when our passion for the game will finally begin to resemble the rest of the world. Others, on the other hand, beg to differ, arguing that these two weeks shouldn’t be chalked up to the growing popularity of soccer in America. Rather, these naysayers assert, Americans were simply fascinated by the big spectacle of the World Cup, not soccer itself.
What am I supposed to think? Should I, a soccer fan, have hope that the sport will grow more mainstream?
Going forward, I have a balanced optimism for the popularity of soccer. To be sure, the majority of those who have been glued to their televisions during US matches will forget about soccer for another four years. But that doesn’t deter my hope for the growth of the sport.
I believe the grittiness of the US team won respect from the general public, and it showed the watching nation that there actually can be excitement and drama in a match that ends in a 1-1 draw. It showed that soccer players actually are incredible athletes with amazing skill and endurance.
More importantly, this World Cup captured the imaginations of many children. I grew up in a household where sports were important. If there was a major sport event on television, we were probably watching. I remember watching the World Series year after year, seeing the roaring crowds, feeling the goosebumps raise on my arms as I imagined myself stepping up to the plate to the deliver the series-winning hit. Those moments helped cultivate a love for the game in me.
I sincerely believe this year’s World Cup did the same for many American youngsters. They saw the fierceness of Clint Dempsey and the incredible goalkeeping of Tim Howard, and it made them dream. Dreams fuel passion, and we will see the fruit of that passion in the next 10 to 15 years.
There are still some obstacles facing America’s embrace of soccer, though. In America, we want instant gratification, and we want a lot of it. This mindset must be adjusted to fully appreciate the game of soccer. One of the biggest critiques of soccer is the draw. To the American mind, ending a match in a draw is absurdity, a sign that the game is for the weak. We are Americans, and we want to know today who is the victor. Soccer, though, takes a longer view of competition. Sure, there may be a tie today, but there is a victor in the end; it’s the team with the most points at the end of the season.
On a related note, many Americans also complain about the lack of scoring in soccer. We have a tough time appreciating the tension of competition without the presence of points. This is evident in every facet of American sports, where rules are being implemented to bolster offense at the expense of defense. Otherwise, ratings would drop. This mindset must change for soccer to be truly appreciated (and for the long-term health of the other sports).
I’m under no impression that soccer will rival the main sports of our culture anytime soon. After all, I’m from Mississippi, the land of the SEC. There is no mistaking in that region which sport is the real American “football.” But as youth, college, and professional soccer continue to grow in this country, we will feel the effects. It will appear more on our televisions and in our magazine ads. Soccer is here to stay and even flourish.
Let me close by talking to you, new soccer fan. Where can you start fanning the flame of your passion for soccer? First, if you’re able, play it. Find a pick-up game somewhere and start playing. This will help you understand the game better, and it will help you meet others who also enjoy the game.
Second, watch professional soccer. You should watch Major League Soccer when you get the chance, but I think new fans should watch European leagues, like the English Premier League, more than anything else. They play the best soccer in the world, and it gives a good example of how soccer should be played in the US. Another reason to watch the European leagues is because that’s where many of our best players play.
Third, if you’re into podcasts, listen to the Men in Blazers. You’ve probably seen them on ESPN during the World Cup. I’ve been listening to them for about 10 months now. They’re hilarious. They love America. They love soccer. That’s all you need to know.
Our country has just gotten the first taste of a drink that has been flowing around the globe for quite some time: soccer mania. It will be interesting to see how we respond in the coming months and years. Will we pass up the new drink to go back to our staple of football, baseball, and basketball? Or will we see Uncle Sam crashing the world’s soccer party as he double fists the kool-aid? I, for one, would love to see the latter.