We here at UF have had numerous discussions about the state (and fate) of soccer in America, mostly along the lines of whether or not it will ever evolve into fan-levels on par with the NFL or MLB. John Feinstein, writer at the Washinton Post (BOOOO!), jumps into the discussion with the idea that we need to understand the history of the sport in America if we are to move forward. Join me after the jump for a little bit about the NASL.
Feinstein starts off his discussion by mentioning that he “really want[s] to like soccer again”, presumably in an effort to assure us that this won’t be yet another ill-informed rant against the strange sport. Then he notes that “there are two ways people look at soccer: Either as the most wondrous sport ever created or the most boring.” For the most part, this would appear to be true – all of us here can attest to that fact. We (i.e. those of us at UF) all have friends who cringe at the mere thought of watching a soccer match (yet will sit for 3.5 hours and watch a 1-0 baseball game), and we all have friends who are absolutely rabid footy fans (if you don’t, you need new friends).
Feinstein’s point is not that we should try to convert the non-believers, it’s that we can lure in the casual observer by understanding more about the history of soccer in the US. Forget for a moment that Feinstein’s description of the dichotomy in his initial thesis (i.e. rabid fans v. those bored to tears) precludes the very idea of a casual observer, and instead take a trip down memory lane. Feinstein does well to note that many of the North American Soccer League (NASL) teams spent quite a bit of money to bring in aging superstars such Pele, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, and Cruyff in order to give the league some credibility. Covering the league as a young reporter (no word on whether he ever met Hirshey), he learned quite a bit about the sport of soccer and grew to love it. But somewhere along the way, they broke up.
The NASL really over-extended itself when it expanded from 12 teams to 24 teams in the span of two years, and MLS has worked hard to avoid the same mistakes. But Feinstein argues that “it still hasn’t gotten to where the NASL was in its glory days. My sense as an outsider is that most soccer people now take the attitude that if you don’t get their sport, it is your loss.” Whether or not the first statement is true is somewhat debateable, but the second is almost certainly true. I know very few people who can understand why I will wake up at 7:30am on a Saturday morning (tomorrow) to watch an on-line feed of the Chelsea v. Manchester United match, particularly when I am an Arsenal fan. I also know that I have very little interest in trying to make them understand.
So, is soccer better off in America now than back in the late 1970s/early 1980s? I certainly hope so – we have far greater TV coverage (hey, ESPN even broadcasts MLS games on nights when there are hockey playoffs going on!), including soccer specific channels like FSC, GolTV (thanks for finally adding it, Comcast! Wankers.), and Setanta. We have soccer-specific stadia. We have more people playing the sport than ever before. We have more casual observers (including the random kit-wearing douchebag from Chicago with the Blanco jersey who couldn’t even spell Cuauhtemoc, much less pronounce it (OK, that’s a little unfair).
I think the reality is somewhat close to what Feinstein has stated, although I think that the picture is a little brighter than he thinks. For the most part, there are two camps of people – the rabid fans and those who think soccer sucks (you ignorant bastards). But I believe that the former group has grown exponentially since the days of the NASL. However, while the state of soccer in America may be bright, this does not necessarily mean that the state of American soccer is the same. People are interested in the international game, such as Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 (and particularly in the EPL; suck it Barclay’s!), and MLS often suffers in comparison. However, if people truly took the time to watch MLS matches, I think they would be pleasantly surprised by what they saw (well, unless they were watching San Jose v. DC United).
Some people think that MLS should strive to more closely emulate the NASL in an effort to draw more interest, but I think that’s probably a bad idea. What part, exactly, of a failed league should we be looking to implement? The wonderful kits? The use of Bugs Bunny as a mascot? (and f**k that useless t**t – I went to numerous Cosmos games as kid, and that bastard never threw one of his stupid carrots to me)
No, I think that soccer in the US is just fine as it is. Those of us who love the sport: (1) appreciate MLS for what it is; (2) wake up at 5AM to watch World Cup matches in Korea; (3) rabidly follow the EPL (or Ligue 1, La Liga, Bundesliga, Eredivisie, or, God forbid, Serie A); and (4) most likely play it as often as possible. To those of you who don’t love the sport, we won’t try to force it down your throats. But stop with the “Soc-cer?” jokes, already. You’re not funny, a**hole.
HT: to John H. for turning me on (eww, gross) to the Feinstein story.