Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 3, 2014

More Likely A Blip Than A Boom For American Soccer

With Team USA’s exit from the World Cup, the result of a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Belgium in the Round of 16, the quadrennial debate began anew. Like many such discussions the adherents on both sides will spend more time talking past rather than to their adversaries; and proponents and opponents alike are equally adept at cherry-picking facts that suit their position. Still there is no escaping the passion which many commentators and fans bring to efforts at defining the place of soccer in American sports.

Last week the right-wing polemicist Ann Coulter published an anti-soccer diatribe on her website. In it she offered up a list of reasons why soccer remains a second-tier sport in this country, including the lack of scoring, focus on team play rather than individual stars, and, anathema to a nativist like Coulter, the charge that soccer is “foreign.”

I have little time for Ann Coulter’s views about anything, but I do appreciate that along with her scorched earth approach to debate she is also capable of being genuinely funny. Unfortunately the progressive professor and pundit Peter Beinart was so offended by her dismissal of the game the rest of the world calls football that he failed to notice that much of Coulter’s column was written with tongue firmly in cheek, as evidenced by many of her specific examples of either soccer’s failings or other sports’ qualities. Instead Beinart used his role as a contributing editor of The Atlantic to pen a much too serious response on the magazine’s website.

In it he charges that the real reason conservatives like Coulter dislike soccer is that as a broadly popular international sport its growth in this country represents a threat to American exceptionalism. That’s fine with Beinart’s world view, which holds that the United States must seek to become both more engaged with the rest of the world while trying less to dominate it. He then cites his own selected facts in support of soccer’s growing popularity, including television ratings for Team USA’s games in Brazil, attendance at Major League Soccer games, and the steady growth of the Hispanic population with immigrant from countries where soccer is the chief sport.

When the relative popularity of a sport becomes a measure of the legitimacy of one’s world view, there is no doubt that one is just trying way too hard. But it’s not just the political pundits who have been swept up in this renewed debate. In Boston city government sponsored watch parties complete with giant television screens on City Hall Plaza for Team USA’s games against Germany in the Preliminary Round and Belgium in the Round of 16. Several hundred fans came out for what was widely reported as a generally festive atmosphere. But a reporter for all-news radio station WBZ got caught up in the excitement when she breathlessly announced at the end of the USA-Belgium contest how exciting it had been to be present at the moment when soccer “took off” in this country.

Forgive me if I don’t stop what I’m doing so I can stand back to watch American soccer take off. I’ve enjoyed watching some of the World Cup matches and unlike a lot of fans in this country I will watch some more even though Team USA has been sent packing. As a casual fan I’m certainly not going to pretend to understand all of the intricacies or rules of the game, but then I could say the same about other sports that I enjoy watching from time to time. With more than a quarter-billion people of both genders and all ages playing the game in more than 200 countries one has to respect the universal appeal of the game across cultures and languages. But I think one can do that while also recognizing that at the professional level soccer is going to remain a lesser sport in this country, and one can hold that opinion without it reflecting some deeper truth about one’s belief in America’s global standing.

In their rush to make a point, both Coulter and Beinart err. The conservative’s complaint about the lack of individual stars suggests that perhaps she really has never paid any attention to the game. As a child, long before I knew much of anything about the game itself, I knew the name Pele. Fast forward a half century and there are plenty of recognizable international stars still playing for their countries as this year’s World Cup moves into its final ten days. After Team USA’s valiant effort against Belgium all the talk was about goalkeeper Tim Howard’s record sixteen saves.

But if Coulter proved her ignorance Beinart’s sin is the more serious one of misusing facts. Yes ESPN had great ratings for the games involving this country’s team; but that’s true of our national team in almost any sport. NBC does great with the Olympics, but no radio reporters have expressed their joy at being present at the moment synchronized swimming “took off” in the United States. It may be true, as Beinart suggests, that MLS teams draw crowds comparable to the NBA and NHL. But the basketball and hockey leagues are filling thirty arenas each for regular seasons lasting 82 games. MLS has just 19 teams and a 34-game season.

Still soccer as a participation sport remains strong in this country, and both demographic shifts plus the ease with which one can stage a match means that it should continue to grow. While participation in organized youth sports has been flat or trending down across the board, there are more young people playing organized soccer than participating in Little League.

Of course millions of Americans participate every week in bowling leagues, but advertisers aren’t paying record sums for 30-second spots on the weekly Candlepins for Cash show. At the professional level there are only so many fan dollars and so much fan interest to go around; and the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA are all firmly established with American sports fans, the occasional work stoppage aside.

If soccer isn’t at that level that doesn’t say anything bad about the sport. But I don’t see that changing anytime soon, and definitely not until the most crucial element of all changes at events like the World Cup. We American fans love our sports, but most of all we love winners. When this World Cup comes to an end, the final standings will show that Team USA finished 15th in a field of 32 teams; a middling result by a middling team. National team coach Jurgen Klinsmann acknowledged as much after the loss to Belgium, saying “When you get out in the Round of 16, clearly it gives you the message you have a lot of work ahead of you.”

Only twice has Team USA made it further in the World Cup and one of those two times was in 1930. Noble defeat makes for a fine human interest story; but in this country it’s the winners who get a parade. For American soccer to truly take off at the professional level, Klinsmann needs to spend the next four years moving his team closer to the day when getting a riotous ride up Gotham’s Canyon of Heroes is more than a fantasy.

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Responses

  1. An unrepentant Ann Coulter doubled down with a second soccer diatribe – replete with more absurdity. A new book suggests we should Never Trust Ann Coulter – at ANY Age, available as a free download at http://www.coulterwatch.com/never.pdf.


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