I grew up across America. I was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and by the time I was in third grade, had lived in Deleware, Michigan, Ohio (thrice), and Texas. The one constant for me, was my love of soccer. Like many parents in the United States today, my parents enrolled me in soccer at the age of three. In fact, based upon youth figures, soccer is the most popular sport in America for young children.
Unfortunately for America, the fascination with soccer really fades out after grade school for most kids. Many of the best athletes gravitate to another sport, to (American) football, to basketball, to baseball, hell even some leave soccer to pursue hockey. The US Soccer Federation loves to tote the fact that soccer is the fastest growing sport in America today. This is good news, but is also fairly obvious once you consider the issues going on in other professional sports today. Of the four other major sports (Football, Basketball, Hockey, & Baseball), three of those have had long term lockouts, and two of those constantly deal with allegations of doping and steroids.. Soccer has escaped much of that critique, and I believe, as a result is viewed differently in America.
First, let me start by saying that the practice of “diving” in soccer is one of the most obvious complaints that non-soccer players like to use as to why soccer is not worth their time. In fact, diving has been so associated with soccer, that when it happens in other sports, many Americans consider it to be the fault of soccer as a whole. For example in a recent Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals NFL game, Jerome Simpson drags a player out by his foot (see left of video) and when pushed after, throws himself in the air in an acrobatic fall, drawing a 15-yard penalty as a result. I was watching the NFL game live, and 10 seconds after it happened, I got a text saying “Looks like the Bengals have been watching more soccer games haha”.
Diving is a practice that the soccer world almost unanimously agrees needs to be stamped out. There is an increased effort to stop the practice. So to consider diving to be indicative of the whole sport of soccer is just as ignorant as saying any time a concussion happens in sport, it’s because people have been following too much football.
It’s always going to be interesting when the country’s fifth favorite sport is your favorite sport. As an American soccer fan, it certainly provided different opportunities for fandom than the big sports. For example, I grew up a Cleveland Cavaliers fan for basketball, by virtue of living near Cleveland and my dad getting free tickets as a part of his job. I became a Cincinnati Reds fan by living in the city. Even as the MLS develops, there still isn’t quite the sense of “hometown team” that there is with the other longer established sports. While this may be considered a domestic problem that the MLS needs to address (and I agree it is) it provides the casual soccer fan with the ability to almost choose his/her team at will. Sure there are some reasons to lean towards a particular side. Say you’re of Anglo-Saxon decent, you’re probably not going to be too keen on the Hungarian teams (of whom your parent’s probably grew up loathing).
It is the prevailing assumption in America that soccer is never on television, and this is true to a certain extent. In the coming days and weeks, there will be the first live soccer match (Arsenal v Man U.) on network television (channels available to everyone, for those outside the US). That’s not to say, however, that there is a lack of coverage (well there is assuming you’re planning on watching the French or German league, and forget about finding smaller leagues such as the Dutch league on TV) as there are several channels, such as Goal.tv, ESPN, ESPN Deportes, FX, Fox Soccer, and Fox Soccer Plus that deliver multiple leagues. This makes it tough for many Americans to be fans of the smaller clubs, not only in the big leagues (as these small teams rarely make the schedule unless they are playing the big clubs), but the big clubs in the non-covered leagues, PSG, Marseille, Bayern, etc.
Soccer is still a large growing game, but it is one that is dealing with negative stereotypes. The image most people have of a soccer game is an hour and a half of boring kick-ball in which a lot of the time, there isn’t even a goal! For a country so obsessed with the NFL and how game-to-game match ups vary, there is simply not enough of the same scrutiny being applied in the soccer world. In America, unfortunately, score rules. While most neutral fans agree that a 5-5 draw is more entertaining than a 0-0 draw, that is not to say that a 0-0 draw is uninteresting, lacks tactics, or is unworthy of discussion. Unfortunately, in America, the view is that if a game ends up 0-0, then “Why the hell did I just waste an hour and a half watching stupid soccer.”
The World Cup comes along every 4 years to give the anti-soccer movement a little break, and to pull some extra fans. The competition itself, while being a worldwide favorite, is actually massive in the United States (at least the 2010 WC was) and got more coverage from ESPN in the month of the competition than soccer got in the other 11 months (minus the promotions for the WC, which ran for months and months in advance). That’s not to say that ESPN America has fully accepted soccer, as it’s obvious every time a soccer play gets in the “Top 10″ the anchors go above and beyond to sound as ethnic and cultural as they can while still dismissing soccer and trying to sound like they’re not just reading the names off the page for the first time, “And look at this….nice goal….by E-MAN-U-EL ….. ADE- BAY – YOURA…….Tottenham with the win in this one….”
For those of us that grew up watching and playing soccer, none of the above is really a make-or-break issue. The ability to watch your team, if you have one, only determines your ability to follow your team and in some cases, the voracity with which you support the team. Before I had Fox Soccer, for example, I could only follow Milan on websites and hope the big games were put on a channel I had. It didn’t diminish my love for my club, it diminished my ability to follow and participate with the club. And that, I think is something that fans worldwide can relate to, no matter the sport.