The Inevitable Rise of Soccer in America

In Front Page, Special Ones, The Breakdown by Aaron West1 Comment

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By Andrew Kenneson, Davidson College Men’s Soccer

RFK stadium is shaking. Not in the mild, possibly even metaphorical, sense that commentators sometimes use to describe an energetic arena, the concrete beneath my feet is swaying like I’m near the epicenter of a low-grade earthquake. The referee just blew his whistle to start the Major League Soccer playoff matchup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, and old, battered Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy stadium feels like it might collapse. The main reason is the District Ultras, the home team’s fan club. About a thousand of them are ten or fifteen rows down from me, and they are jumping in near-perfect unison while chanting “United! United! United!” A grizzled, tattooed man in a black tank top rises out of the mass and faces the crowd. He shouts something, waves his arms, and the chant changes. The stadium shakes for about five minutes into the match when the noise from the Ultras settles down to a dull roar.

Sitting above the heads of these passionate supporters is a stark reminder of soccer’s place in America. You see, RFK used to be a football stadium. When the Washington Redskins moved out around 10 years ago, DC United moved in. The soccer team, however, does not draw enough fans to fill up the cavernous arena, so the top deck is closed. All around the stadium are thousands of empty yellow and maroon seats that will probably never be occupied again. The scene is perfectly analogous to state of soccer in America; a small but dedicated fan base surrounded on all sides by reminders of their second-class status.

Halfway around the world, Emerson Hyndman is cold. It’s a bleak and windy October afternoon in London, and the Texan is standing in the middle of Fulham Football Club’s practice field, craning his neck to hear his coach’s instructions. He’s saying something about switching the ball from one side of the field to the other. The possession drill starts up again, and Hyndman is glad to be moving. He floats through the game, picking passes with ease and laying a tackle every now and again. In four days, he’ll start against Derby County in a League Cup clash.

Hyndman is a rising star in American soccer. At the age of eighteen, he’s made multiple starts for Fulham and has appeared for the national team. Fans and coaches expect a lot from him when he matures as a player. But when compared with other players his age across the globe, he’s average. No one will pay 35 million pounds for him as Paris Saint-Germain did for Brazilian teenage defender Marquinhos last year. He plays in the second-division of English soccer while other players his age like Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling, and Adnan Januzaj ply their trade for some of the best teams in the first. Just as the DC United fans were emblematic of soccer fandom in America, Hyndman symbolizes American soccer on the world stage. And that is, in short, outmatched in almost every capacity.

But soccer fans from Orlando to Juneau, do not despair. And those of you who see soccer as an insidious foreign import that’s turning our youth into flopping grass fairies, don’t gloat just yet. While American soccer is second class on and off the field today, this will not always be so. Soccer’s rise in America is inevitable. It will not be quick, and it will not be easy. But with time and investment, American soccer will emerge as a top sport at home and a force to be reckoned with abroad.

These two factors, fandom and player development, are inextricably intertwined. More fans mean more money and motivation to develop good players. More good players mean more people will want to watch them. But the latter must lead the way. The demographics that tend to support American soccer are growing rapidly, and the game will grow with them regardless of the quality of players the country produces. Because if there is one thing Americans like, it’s a winner. If Americans can win on the world stage of soccer, fandom will follow in greater and greater numbers. For a variety of reasons, soccer is the game of the future. Growth is unavoidable. How fast this growth occurs will be determined by the quality of player America can produce. So how can soccer compete with other sports in popularity at home and competitively abroad? Let’s take a look.

Altidores and Müllers: Developing a Smarter Soccer Player

Jozy Altidore is a freak. North of six feet tall and two hundred pounds, he wouldn’t look out of place playing middle linebacker for Dallas Cowboys. He’s absurdly strong, capable of posting up defenders like he’s Dwight Howard, yet surprisingly light on his feet. Seeing the American’s hulking presence steaming around the soccer field, it’s easy to imagine why coaches put him in their teams.

Thomas Müller is not a freak.  Skinny and gangly with too-big feet and a too-small head, the German looks more like a teenager in the throes of puberty than a professional soccer player. On the field he does nothing flashy. He works hard defensively, and when he does touch the ball, it’s never more than once or twice. Müller never intimidated anyone by his looks alone; a writer for The Guardian once likened him to a “junior doctor on a fun run.”

The biggest difference between Altidore and Müller is not their appearance; it’s their goal scoring records. Müller scores goals in droves. He bagged 35 last year for his club Bayern Munich, and scored five in the World Cup to help Germany lift the trophy. He’s now eighth all time with ten World Cup goals, and he’s only 25. Altidore does not score goals. Well, that’s not fair; he scores goals, but just not with the profligacy of Müller or any other top striker. He has not settled at a club for an extended period, and he’s struggled to make an impact at most the places he’s been. Altidore has traveled from Spain, to a loan spell in England, to the Netherlands, and back to England on a full contract where he might leave soon.  Nevertheless, he’s been the first choice striker for the American national team for several years now.

The point is that there are basically two types of soccer players: those who play with their bodies, and those who play with their minds. Almost every player fits into one of these two categories. There are, of course, once-in-a-generation talents like Lionel Messi who does both at once, but such players are few and far between. Generally speaking, American players are the former. Besides Altidore, Michael Bradley covers more ground than almost anyone in the world, but he could run less if he had a better understanding of where to be. Omar Gonzalez is big, athletic, and excellent at last-ditch clearances, but too often he has to do just that because he was out of position in the first place. The list goes on.

This attention to physicality is a residue of other sporting cultures in America, particularly football where physical traits matter most. In football, sometimes it works (J.J. Watt) and sometimes it doesn’t (Jamarcus Russell). But in soccer, the physical, especially in young players, can be nothing more than a distraction.  Just look at Freddy Adu, the fourteen-year-old who was tipped to lead America into a new age of soccer greatness. He was athletic and strong for his age, things that distracted scouts from other weaknesses. He’s now 25, last plying his trade in Serbia, and nowhere near an international call-up.

Thierry Henry recently offered his opinion on player development. He said that if he had a son playing the game he would tell him to emulate, you guessed it, Thomas Müller. That’s because Müller understands space. He doesn’t need the freakish athleticism to score goals. He is, in his own words, a Raumdeuter, German for “space investigator.” Müller has a knack for just appearing in the right place at the right time to poke or nod home a goal. This is his special talent, and it is one that Americans will have to nurture if they are ever going to develop into world class players.

Take, for example, the goal Müller scored for Bayern Munich against Cologne in 2012. He took up a position on the outside shoulder of the left center back, and the ball was played his way. The defender bit, thinking Müller would to try to control it, but the Raumdeuter had seen something no one else has. He left the ball, spun away from his bamboozled marker and the ball ran past both of them, straight into the path of Rafinha, Müller’s teammate charging in from the wing. The defender had no choice but to step to Rafinha, leaving space, that oh-so-precious commodity, right in front of the goal. Müller was there in a flash, Rafinha rolled the ball into his path, and the net bulged. The whole play took about five seconds.

This ability to anticipate where space will open up and exploit it is rarely seen in American players. Americans will often try to outmuscle or outrun their opponents instead of out-thinking them. Granted this is nuanced ability is hard to develop, but shifting focus on players who exhibit this skill rather than physical ability will go a long way to making American soccer more competitive on a global scale.

American soccer took a huge step in this direction with the hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann as the head coach of the national team in 2011. The German, who played at the highest level with Bayern Munich and Germany in the 1990’s, is just the man to institute a more thoughtful approach to the game. Even after only a few games in charge, the national team played more on the ground and made more intelligent movements. We’re getting there, but it will be a long road.

Patience is a Virtue: Soccer fans in America.

Let me paint a portrait of the average American soccer fan. He’s twenty-six years old, half Mexican and half American, lives outside of Los Angeles, and played Division II soccer in college. He works a white-collar job and voted for Obama in the last election. He wears Clint Dempsey’s USA jersey during the weekend when he wakes up to catch the early English Premier League games, particularly those involving his favorite club, Arsenal. He’s been to several Los Angeles Galaxy games and is pretty upset about Landon Donovan’s retirement.

Soccer fans in America are, as the example suggests, often young, city-dwelling, left-leaning people with immigrant heritage. The three key demographics here are young, immigrant, and played soccer. As these three groups are growing, soccer is growing with them. Immigrant populations are increasing, especially around cities. In a recent survey of Hispanics, 26% said soccer was their favorite sport, followed by football at 22% and basketball at 14%. Football still leads by a fairly large margin among young adults with 33%, but soccer is second with 13%. In 1974, there were only 100,000 players registered with U.S. youth soccer; today there are over 3 million. 30 percent of American households have at least one individual who plays soccer. This is important because in a society where many find soccer boring, playing the game helps develop an appreciation for its nuances. More players equal more fans.

But perhaps the biggest shared trait among American soccer fans is impatience. Every time a new statistic emerges stating average MLS attendance now outstrips that of the Celtics, they want to say soccer is now part of that hallowed pantheon of football, basketball, and baseball. Or when they will or when 28,000 fans skip work and pack into Soldier Field to watch the national team take on Belgium in the last World Cup they’ll say things like, “Well it looks like fútbol is the new football!”  What many seem not to understand is that football, baseball, basketball are embedded in American culture in ways that soccer is not. An entire other article could be written about this, but here’s a few examples. The Super Bowl is a holiday in America. Just putting the words “March” and “Madness” together conjures images of basketball. If a classroom or workplace has a “three strike policy” for misdemeanors, they can thank baseball. I could do this all day.

There is no soccer equivalent to this cultural entrenchment. These sorts of things take time, and soccer only really arrived in America twenty years ago. The other games have had decades upon decades to become part of life in America.  I remember my father telling me about gym class in rural Indiana in the early seventies. At the end of the semester, he said, the teacher pulled out a soccer ball and attempted to explain to a generation raised on Johnny Unitas and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that you were supposed to use your feet. After the initial pandemonium died down, my father and his friends played the first soccer game any of them had ever played. That was only forty years ago.

Despite the consternation of people like Anne Coulter, I believe that soccer can one day be part of American culture.  Things are already starting to shift in that direction.  The recent concussion wave in the NFL means fewer parents are putting their kids in football pads. 40% of parents said they would push their kids away from football in a recent survey, and participation in high school football fell 2.3% in 2013 from 2008. This decline was part of a larger trend of fewer kids playing team sports across the board. Soccer participation, however, remained constant. But there are larger factors at work here. The nature of soccer and the nature of other popular sports in America could lead to more and more fans following soccer.

Football and basketball are games with countless interruptions and distractions where the game stops every minute or so. Commercials for beer, cars, and erectile dysfunction pills blare out the screen with greater frequency than touchdowns or alley-oops. Viewers are turned into nothing more than bank accounts.  At the stadium, video boards and announcers implore fans to “GET LOUD!!” and “SHOW SOME SPIRIT AND WIN A FREE PIZZA!!” The whole experience is demeaning, like fans are children who don’t know how to properly cheer on their teams.

Soccer, on the other hand, has none of this. On television, the game is two, forty-five-minute, commercial-free halves with no time-outs and no breaks. At the stadium, the only stimulation is the game. If the play on the field merits making noise, then noise will be made. There’s a certain pureness that comes with a game where the only noise at any level of play, from pee-wee to La Liga, is the thud of the ball being struck, the cries of the players, and the ebb and flow of cheers from the stands. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with advertisements and sales pitches, it is a pleasant, even therapeutic, experience to sit back and be free of all it. As long as professional sports and life in general grow more and more saturated with advertising and as long as we continue to treat people as objects whose enthusiasm must be artificially aroused, soccer’s appeal and fan base will continue to grow.

The obvious problem with this nearly commercial-free sporting experience is that it will not generate enough money to compete with other sports in America. This is true. Soccer is, to a certain extent, inhibited financially by its own rules. Most soccer clubs do not make money; they are instead overseen by wealthy owners who pour funds into the coffers. They do this because either they love the club or they want to increase their own visibility and social capital. Given the global nature of soccer, there is no better way

As mentioned before, a slew of clubs are now owned by Qatari, Dubai, or Russian-based investors, usually with oil money. Given that they live in an unstable part of the world, they buy clubs to increase their own visibility and influence elsewhere. Here’s where demographics come back into play.  As more people begin to support soccer and the MLS grows in popularity, owning a soccer club in America will look like a better and better investment from a social capital point of view. This club might not make money. But if I’m a Qatari owning a well-supported and visible asset in the center of the Western world, I’ll be okay with losing a few dollars. Just look at New York City F.C., the MLS club that will join the league in 2015. Half of the club is owned by a conglomerate headed by a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, a group that also owns Premier League club Manchester City. The team recently purchased Spain’s all-time goal leader, David Villa, and Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s all time goal leader. Both may be past their prime, but they still represent major steps forward for the MLS.  It is this second wave of investment, based on social rather than hard capital, which will bring soccer in America level with other sports.

There’s more. Soccer is a foreign import to America, and as with all foreign imports, some are suspicious of it. A common argument is that, since it comes from Europe, it’s anti-American and even socialist. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Soccer fits more with America’s sense of free markets and independence of choice than any other sport on the planet. Take for example, the relegation system that rules almost every soccer league in the world besides the MLS.  In those leagues, finishing last is not rewarded with the bailout of draft picks; it’s punished by relegation, or being sent down to a lower league. A successful team in those divisions is rewarded by being promoted to the higher division. This would be like the Yankees, after a particularly miserable year, being sent down to the minor leagues and replaced by the Albuquerque Isotopes. The ruthlessly capitalistic nature of relegation strikes hardest in the English Premier League, where being relegated costs the club about $25 million. Poor performance being punished by losing money; now what could be more American than that?

Even the way the game is played fits with the ethos of American culture, particularly in comparison to football. The complete NFL rulebook is 114 pages, single spaced, and stuffed full of sections and articles and jargon and diagrams. It reads like a law fresh out of Congress, with all kinds of regulations, rules, and restrictions on what players can and, mostly, cannot do. Soccer, on the other hand, has seventeen rules. If you use seven-point font, you can fit them a single page. In short, the players of a soccer game are free. They can do just about anything. For example, there are entire sections of the football rulebook dedicated to illegal formations. The linemen have to be just so, and the ball must move exactly the right way. In soccer, there’s no such thing as an illegal formation. Aside from having multiple goalkeepers, a team can line up any way they choose.

Not only are soccer players free from rules, they are free from coaches. Football is a completely top-down game. An offensive or defensive coordinator calls a play and the team on the field runs. No ifs ands or buts. No agency. No freedom. It’s an authoritarian dictatorship. In soccer, players can do whatever they want. They have agency and the ability to be creative. A player with the ball can pass forwards, backwards or sideways, he can dribble past another player and then pass, he can dribble past two players and then pass, he can shoot, he can dribble past another player and shoot… you get the idea. The options are endless. When you watch a football game, you’re seeing the desires of two men played out by their minions. When you watch a soccer game, you’re watching 22 people exercise their agency as human beings.

These are the ways soccer could become a mainstay in American culture rather than a trend that fades in and out every four years. That being said, there still needs to be player or group of players, who usher in that change. This could happen within the next two decades. Somewhere out there, there might be some six or seven year old kids who will make American soccer a force on the international level and a major sport domestically.

Practice is over in London. Emerson Hyndman slowly walks off the field toward the locker rooms and a warm respite from the bitter weather. He high-fives a few teammates on the way before one of his coaches calls him over to the edge of the field.   They shake hands, and the coach congratulates the young midfielder on his play in the last few training sessions. He then gives him a few suggestions, like how he needs to open his hips to the field more when he defends and how he needs to demand the ball more in possession. As they part ways the coach says, “Just keep doing your thing Emerson. One pass at a time.”

DC United score. The stadium explodes into deafening cheers, and every one of the Ultras throws their beer into the air. The man in the black tank top rips it off and beats his bare chest like a tattooed Tarzan and the chant bursts from the crowd again, “United! United! United!” I look around the stadium and absorb the smiles, yells, hugs, and high-fives, the painted faces, and the scarves held high. All of a sudden, the vacant seats don’t seem so important. They may be empty, but the stadium is still shaking.

About the Author

Aaron West

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