Where does soccer stand in U.S.?

Tuesday September 1st, 2009

I'm off to Argentina for Saturday's anticipated World Cup qualifier between Argentina and Brazil. It's a clash that resonates through the global game -- the two great South American rivals, producers of an extraordinary quantity of the greatest players ever, going at each other with regional pride at stake.

For Argentina, there's much more involved this time. The Brazilians look comfortably on course to qualify for South Africa. The Argentines do not. This game is key to their campaign. A win and they should be safe, defeat will plunge them into a dogfight. With the fans close to the field in the stadium of Rosario Central, it should be a memorable occasion.

Then, four days later, I'm watching Uruguay against Colombia in Montevideo. One of these teams might make it to South Africa. Both will not. The winner might be able to dream of overtaking Argentina and snatching fourth place. More realistic is the possibility of finishing fifth, and going into the playoff against opponents from CONCACAF.

In the last two World Cup cycles, Uruguay just eked out Colombia to that playoff position, which saw it face the champions of Oceania home and away. Uruguay overcame Australia the first time, and lost the Socceroos the second. As the proud winner of the first-ever World Cup, Uruguay doesn't want to miss out on the competition for the second time running. As the saying famously goes, "Other countries have their history, Uruguay has its football."

All of this stuff about the cultural importance of then game takes me back to my last column, which investigated soccer's importance in the identity of several nations in Europe and South America, and ended by wondering if it could ever take on the same role in the United States.

That piece received one of the best responses of anything I have written for SI.com in the past 2½ years, with the highest level of debate -- so I thought it would be interesting to pick out the principal schools of thought.

Joshua Fletcher of New Jersey made the important point that other sports got there first in the U.S. and claimed the cultural high ground. "Even if soccer gets bigger here (which is inevitable)," he wrote, "it seems unlikely to challenge any of the 'major' sports here."

Kevin Farrell of Snow Camp, N.C., agreed -- and went further. "For the present and foreseeable future, soccer will remain something of a niche sport in the U.S.," he argues. "Soccer is still widely perceived as a foreign sport. While we can and should be grateful to the legions of Britishers who started our youth leagues and coached us over the past generation or two, the soccer establishment needs to stop using British terminology so much.

"In the U.S., outside of the domain of these self-congratulatory insiders, it's a field, not a pitch; a team, not a side; a tying goal, not an equalizer; zero or nothing, not nil, and so on." The foreign terminology, he concludes, "doesn't fly with a majority of sports fans here."

Perhaps a counter-argument is that in a nation of immigrants, today's foreign can be tomorrow's native. That certainly seems to be the line that Drew Brown of Rochester is taking. "Soccer is what's allowing the new wave of American immigrants to mix into U.S. society," he says. "The acceptance of the sport by college educated, mostly white males has allowed for a commonality with the influx of Latino, African and Eastern European immigrants that would have no other basis for interaction."

He also feels that the game in the U.S. "is growing organically because we finally have the full structure that soccer needs to permeate our vast expanse of a nation. We have spots that explode with growth due to fertilization here and there, but everywhere there's a steady growth. Every kid who plays the game competitively has a favorite player and can name numerous players and teams and probably watched several games on TV this weekend. My 7-year-old and 4-year-old sons were in tears as the U.S. lost to Brazil this summer [in the Confederations Cup final]. They go to numerous games, know the chants by heart and have asked me to sing them before they go to bed. Twenty years ago, these things just didn't happen."

Others would appear to believe that he is claiming too much. Gino of New Jersey reluctantly takes the view that, "The game has gotten just about as far it can here. I just don't see any real connections developing between teams and the community. There just aren't the socioeconomic factors that drive people in London to support different teams from the same city. There's no sense that one team represents a blue-collar, hard-working ethic of its town, whereas another team is the fashionable side for blue-bloods."

Jo White in Arlington is worried that not enough has been done in "the development of regional/city rivalries. This is a long way off and I won't see it really come to fruition in my lifetime. In countries where it is ingrained in the culture ... it is largely driven by the local and regional rivalries. Seattle vs. Portland is going to be a beautiful rivalry in MLS ... huge, vocal and passionate fans as if you were at a match in Europe or South America. We need more like this in MLS and U.S. in general."

But White has another worry: "My contention is that in nation as large (geographically) as the U.S., soccer will never become a fabric of our society until it is broadcast on formerly 'over-the-air' networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox. There are millions who still do not have access to, or will never pay for, cable or satellite programming. Until a kid in Kansas can turn on ABC on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and watch a D.C. United vs. Sounders FC match ... he won't really care or know anything about it."

That, of course, means battling for space against the likes of American football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Dallen Hohulin of Phoenix thinks that soccer is up to the task. "Maybe it will never be inexorably linked with national identity quite like England, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina," he writes, "but it will grow to take hold of a significant enough base that it will rival countries like France. We have too much money, facilities/infrastructure and athletes playing the game for it to not eventually rival traditional American sports."

Eric Peterson of Pittsburgh is another who is confident that the game is marching in the right direction. "Will we blend the best of both the Latin (possession) and European (power and counterattack) worlds?" he asks. "And, just as importantly, will we reach a dominant level by employing that unique style? I think it will take both of those things before soccer becomes what you suggest it might: important to our identity as a country.

"Occasionally, soccer can capture this country's hearts (this summer's Confed Cup, the 1999 Women's World Cup). But we're discussing a time when we rely on soccer to lift our hearts the way Brazil, Argentina, Italy and others do. We've got a ways to go, maybe one full generation of both fans and players. But I think it'll happen, and I hope I'm around for it."

Nate of New York sees a problem: "If a football team is the embodiment of the national spirit (and I'd agree with you that it is), the U.S. will never be a major soccer nation simply because we have no conception of a national identity outside of the civic arena."

His point is embellished by Daniel Robertson of Dallas: "People in this country have never truly backed national-team accomplishments in any sport as a source of national pride," he writes. "What we hold highest is individual accomplishments like Michael Phelps, Michael Johnson, etc. ... Where people feel pride in their teams is in a city-to-city basis, like New York lives and dies with how the Yankees do, Dallas lives and dies on the Dallas Cowboys and so forth. It's not just soccer, it is every sport that American's don't truly rally behind their national teams."

This, to an outsider such as myself, is a fascinating point. The focus on individualism is interesting -- but then surely seems to be undermined by the idea that cities can feel so represented by a collective. Perhaps context is all-important. In the sphere where the Cowboys or the Yankees operate, they can be considered the biggest around without leaving the States. Soccer is different. It's the global game. The bar is much, much higher. Once that bar is cleared, it will surely be easier for the game to find its space.

Jim of Brea, Calif., certainly thinks so: "Americans like to follow winners," he points out. "So for the national team, we need a coach that understands as a team they need to win titles."

But this is a process that starts way before the players are in the clutches of Bob Bradley. Billy Harper in Suwanee, Ga., believes that, "When the U.S. national team (which is predominantly white) becomes a more accurate representation of the country's entire population would be when the U.S. truly embraces the sport."

This brings us to the thorny issue of youth development. Kent Welch in Orlando was, to my surprise, one of the only people who touched on what, to these foreign eyes, seems a very strange way to go about building for the future: the pay-for-play system. The breakthrough in U.S. soccer will come, he says, "When the USSF set up a better system for selecting players, especially younger players whose parents cannot afford to enroll in the selected camps controlled by the more fortunate ones."

Surely a nation trying to establish itself in soccer needs to widen the net as far as possible to catch all available talent? And if the global history of soccer tells us anything, it is that the outstanding talent is most likely to be found where the money isn't.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.