The World Cup continues, but the USA’s run in the tournament is over. After escaping the group stages with a thrilling win over Ghana and a heartbreaking draw with Porugal (followed by a less than thrilling loss to Germany), the US Men’s National Team was dispatched by Belgium after an entertaining contest that saw the American goalkeeper Tim Howard put in a remarkable performance.
The World Cup has drawn plenty of attention to American soccer. While this uptick in interest during the tournament is not unprecedented, there has been some legitimate cause for increased optimism within the American soccer fanbase. EA Sports’ FIFA video game franchise has grown a sizable following in the states, leading many to show more interest in the sport. The generation of young people who play this game most often are growing up with the sport playing a larger part in their lives (i.e. more extensive participation in youth soccer) than it did in previous generations, a fact that could lead to more sustained interest in the game down the road.
Meanwhile, Major League Soccer (MLS), the USA’s top domestic professional league, has taken several major steps forward during the last decade, increasing the quality of its play, expanding into new markets (including several in Canada) and obtaining a level of financial stability hitherto unheard of in the world of American professional soccer. Whereas multiple prior professional American soccer leagues fell victim to financial catastrophe prior to their 20th birthday, MLS is going on year 21 with a very strong financial foundation and an optimistic outlook for the future.
That being said, this optimism has a limit. Soccer has come a long way in the USA, but there is still cause to believe that it may never go quite as far as it has in other parts of the world. Here are some of the reasons why.
1. Americans Are Not The Best At It
Americans aren’t used to playing role of underdog. American culture has always had a perspective that seems larger than life: it is the biggest, it is the baddest, and it is the best. That has historically been (for better or worse) the way Americans view themselves. Americans do not play catch up – they lead the way, and everyone else follows.
In soccer, Americans are on the other end of the spectrum: they are the underdogs who have been vigorously playing “catch up” with the rest of the world for decades and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
To USA Soccer’s credit, decent attempts have been made to turn this “underdog” angle into a positive one, tying into deeper American cultural memes that idolize the challenge of “climbing the ladder”, so to speak, and emphasize the value of perseverance in the face of long odds and the struggles associated with that process.
I fear that even with this reasoning, however, Americans will still maintain only a limited ability to warm to the game of soccer and their nation’s position within that game. Basketball, American football and baseball may not have the global following that soccer has, but Americans can say unequivocally that they are the best in the world at each of those games. Like it or not, the ability to make such a statement and feel comfortable about its validity matters a lot to Americans and probably always will.
That brings me to my next point…
2. Soccer Isn’t American
Baseball, American football and basketball are as American as apple pie. They were not only invented and largely developed within the USA, but they have also grown with the nation for more than a century and woven themselves firmly into the historical and cultural fabric of this society during that time. The American story is, in many ways, tied to each of these sports. They aren’t just games – they are America’s games.
While soccer has this kind of historical legitimacy in many other parts of the world (where it has been interwoven into the cultural fabric for over a century and become a fundamental part of other nations’ historical and cultural narratives), it does not possess that kind of legitimacy here. The game is, for the most part, foreign to Americans and its nuances entirely new to most of them. Granted, familiarity can grow over time but the existence of several other sports (all of which have more than a century’s worth of head start with regard to the manufacturing of that legitimacy) will limit the degree to which soccer can grow to really be considered a game that belongs to Americans and is more than just a distant European import.
Americans are unusual in the sheer number of sports they follow. In the UK, for example, the team sports landscape is quite simple. Soccer is the undisputed king of the hill, while sports like rugby establish a reasonably lucrative financial and cultural niche for themselves well below that level and every other team sport pretty much competes for the leftovers. English soccer has no true equal or peer in the UK sporting scene; it is in a league of its own at the very top of the pyramid.
In the USA, things are far more complicated. The NFL is generally considered to be the current king of the American sports hill, but it is rivaled by both the MLB and the NBA (in the addition to the NHL which, though smaller than the others, gets its fair share of attention and financial support). This means that, while nations like the UK really only have one team sport whose profile can be considered truly “major” and is generally unrivalled in stature by any other team game, the USA has several major team sports that could all be considered peers of one another.
This leads to a relatively crowded sporting landscape, one in which competition for viewers and broadcasting dollars is fierce year round. This is where things get tough for soccer: the game is arriving late to this party as a clear foreign outsider, and being forced to compete with not just a single league or game that is established already, but several major power players, all with much longer histories in the USA, more financial clout and a greater degree of resonance to the culture that the American public pledges allegiance to.
4. Lack Of Physicality And The Tolerance Of Weakness
Americans love physical games. The most popular professional sporting competitions in the USA involve the games of American football, ice hockey, baseball and basketball. All of these are sports that put a great emphasis on raw physical talent (height, weight, speed, strength), and that isn’t a coincidence: Americans like to see athletic heroes that are bigger, strong, and faster than everyone else, physical specimens that can be looked up to and admired. Games like American football take this to an extreme at which one pretty much must be a physical freak in order to compete at a high level.
Soccer, on the other hand, puts a much greater emphasis on technical ability, intelligence, stamina and mental fortitude than most major American team sports, while simultaneously de-emphasizing raw, god-given physical talent. You simply do not need to be a particularly gifted natural athlete to excel on a soccer pitch—many of the world’s elite players are not very big, not very strong, and not capable of setting the world on fire with their 100 meter dash times. They dominate anyway because of their incredible technical ability, IQ, and conditioning (both mental and physical).
It isn’t that Americans cannot appreciate such an athlete; it is just that they tend to appreciate such non-physical gifts much less than most of the rest of the world does, while simultaneously appreciating natural athleticim more than the rest of the world does. Soccer’s ability to give a platform to athletes like Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona (men who are technically gifted but quite small, not very strong, and not remarkably fast or otherwise impressive athletically) simply isn’t going to resonate quite as well in a society dedicated to the worship of unusually big, strong and quick physical specimens.
The prevalence of flopping and diving in the game of soccer only exacerbates this problem. While diving/flopping/injury faking occurs in American sports (basketball most prominently, less commonly in others), none approach soccer’s level of play acting. Players frequently fall to the ground after receiving only slight touches, a practice that is often necessitated by the fact that referees award them for doing so by calling fouls, handing out cards and giving penalties to the “offenders” seen to have cause the “injury”.
Americans love tough guys as much as they love their physical specimens. The popularity of American football is not coincidental: Americans identify very strongly with the physicality that the game represents. American football’s emphasis on the infliction of pain, the tolerance of pain, and perseverance through pain all resonate extraordinarily well with the American psyche. Americans love to see others struggle with pain and learn to overcome it, especially when they can do so as a group. In much of the country, the violent, aggressive, hard nosed, tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners attitude so readily cultivated and displayed in American football is the most fundamental part of community identity. It can be credibly argued that there simply isn’t a narrative that the average working American identifies more closely with than that articulated in the game of American football.
It is this reality that will make soccer intolerable to many Americans, as it is a game where players too often act out precisely the opposite narrative. Soccer players do not inflict pain very often, appear to have a lower tolerance for its infliction via violent physical contact (as evidence by their frequent flops) and simply don’t often display the violent, aggressive, “tough guy” attitude Americans have grown so fond of over the course of well over a century.
The fact that they are rewarded for their lack of physical perseverance in the face of physical contact is simply intolerable to most Americans. Europeans look at a soccer player who falls down easily after receiving some physical contract (instead of staying on his feet and fighting through it in order to continue playing) and see an intelligent—if cynical and somewhat cheesy—strategic play designed to draw foul calls and put the other team in a more difficult tactical position. Americans look at that and simply see weakness and the promotion of weakness, and there are few things they hate more than that. The unfortunate reality is that this relative lack of physicality (and reward/tolerance of it) is a fundamental part of soccer, and it isn’t something Americans are ever going to warm to.
None of this is to say that soccer lacks great growth potential in the USA. MLS is expanding in earnest, and statistics relating to the game’s finances and popularity in the country have been trending upward for some time and look set to continue doing so. The biggest challenge that the game faces in the USA relates to its bid to win the hearts and minds of the American populace. That, I’m afraid, will likely prove to be an uphill battle. It will be very interesting to see how far the game can go in this country in spite of that reality.
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