I bet you think soccer is as American as cricket and as thrilling as the Westminster dog show. All that kicking and heading, and no hands? Maybe that's why Zinedine Zidane dropped Marco Materazzi with a head butt in the 2006 World Cup final. He didn't realize he could use those things attached to his shoulders to throw a punch. And games that end 0-0? (Sorry, nil-nil.) The zealots will tell you that soccer is ready to become America's fifth major sport. In my mind, it already is. If you're too slow to play basketball, too scared for baseball, too small for football and too clumsy for hockey, you turn to soccer.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have tried my feet at the game. Let's just say it didn't take. It was 1988, and I was in second grade at Sacred Heart Elementary in Kingston, Mass. My team went 0-9. My father was the coach. I was the goalkeeper. After the season the team parents gave my dad a book on how to coach soccer. "I didn't need it," he tells me now. "I already knew how to win. Don't put you in goal." I hadn't watched a soccer game since.
My feelings toward the sport -- which, as you may have guessed, I have shared on occasion -- convinced my editors that I was the perfect candidate to hop in the minivan. The idea was a five-day, six-game odyssey along the East Coast, a trip that would allow me to see some of the world's best teams (Brazil! Argentina!) and check out what the U.S. had to offer (MLS, the national team). Hey, I know all about how MLS is expanding, and I see all those little kids in Manchester United shirts scurrying around my neighborhood. The sport is all over my cable system. But I just can't get next to soccer. Am I wrong?
That's why I'm making this trip: to find out if soccer really is as god-awful as I think it is -- or to discover that I haven't given it enough of a chance.
COMPLAINT NO. 1
American Fans Lack Passion
Two weeks ago, if you'd asked me about La Barra Brava, I would have guessed it was a Latin boy band. Turns out, with over 1,000 members representing more than 30 countries, the Barra is considered MLS's largest, most diverse and most rabid fan group. Great, I thought when I learned I'd be hanging out with them in Washington, D.C., for United's game against the Houston Dynamo on June 4. The David Hasselhoff fan club.
My first indication to the contrary came well before kickoff. A driving rain had turned a four-hour trip from Manhattan into six, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd get to see my first soccer game at all. I texted Rob Gillespie, one of Barra's elders, to confirm that the pregame tailgate had been washed out. His answer was succinct: rain or shine.
It's amazing what Barra members can do during a tornado watch. They can eat, even when their rolls have turned to mush and the charcoal flames are reduced to a flicker. They can drink, even if their keg cups contain less beer than monsoon. And they can sing. Oh, can they sing. First Vamos United. Then the Barra Brava song. Soon I'm frantically scrolling through my BlackBerry for the lyrics and singing along -- it's addictive.
The Barra takes advantage of a break in the rain to head into RFK Stadium. Rather than seek refuge beneath the overhanging stands members march directly to their section at midfield. They cluster together behind a massive black banner, even though the stadium isn't lacking for seating. As the players emerge, the chants begin again. Everyone on Houston sucks. The refs suck. Cobi Jones sucks. (Never mind that Jones, I learn, played in L.A., retired last year and is not in attendance.)
After 16 minutes the referees deem the field unplayable and wave the teams out of the muck. The Barra doesn't move. When lightning strikes in the distance, the P.A. announcer tells fans to take cover in the concourse. The Barra chants louder. Only after a personal request from a United official does the Barra relent. An hour later the game is suspended. A few angry Barra members storm the flooded field and are escorted out. The rest leave on their own, hurling profanities.
As I wade back to the van, water spills from my sneakers at every step. I should be miserable, but I'm not. I'm smiling. American soccer fans are great. If only there were a few more of them.
COMPLAINT NO. 2
There Is No Strategy
Who is Claudio Reyna? The New York Red Bulls had persuaded Reyna to sit with me during the first half of their Thursday night game against Chivas USA at Giants Stadium, so it was probably a good idea to know whom I'd be talking to. Reyna, I learned, is the former U.S. captain who had a successful career in Europe before returning to the States to join MLS. (He's currently injured.) O.K., here was a man who could talk soccer. Here was a man who could explain how there is more to the game than 20 players running up and down the field. That there's more to scoring goals than one really good player kicking the ball in the general direction of the net -- and hoping it gets past a bunch of guys.
But there isn't, as even Reyna admitted. "Some teams play technically," he said. "Mostly in Europe. But soccer is probably the least coached sport of them all." Reyna did turn me on to certain nuances. Spacing is critical, and coaches often shift players into more defensive positions when they have a lead late in games. Up by a goal with the clock winding down against Chivas, Red Bulls midfielder Dave Van den Bergh raced toward the sideline and shouted to New York coach Juan Carlos Osorio to assign someone to "sit on" Chivas midfielder Paulo Nagamura. Osorio sent in defensive-minded midfielder Luke Sassano, who helped New York hang on for the win.
Still, Reyna confirmed my belief that soccer is more about individual talent than teamwork. He mentioned former national team striker Brian McBride, whose ability to head a ball in traffic is unmatched. And, of course, there's David Beckham, who could ping a paparazzo in the head from 50 yards away if he felt like it. "What Beckham can do with free kicks and corner kicks," says Reyna, "is an art form."
So there is strategy: Get more players like Beckham.
COMPLAINT NO. 3
It's Mind-Numbingly Dull...
MLS boosters like to point out that attendance across the league is rising. They note that their games averaged 16,770 fans last year, highest since 1996, the inaugural season. They tell you it doesn't look as if that many fans are coming because many teams still play in cavernous football stadiums. All that may be true. But the reason I haven't been coming is that I like action.
I want a sport to seize my attention and keep it. My impression: In soccer you can marvel at a pretty goal or a diving save, then go to the bathroom, call your girlfriend, buy a plate of nachos and make it back to your seat before a team crosses midfield again.
On Day 3 of my trip I packed the minivan with three soccer-loving SI staffers and headed to Foxborough, Mass., to catch a doubleheader: FC Dallas versus the New England Revolution, followed by an exhibition between Venezuela and Brazil. If action was what I wanted, the second game was surely the ticket. Brazil, as soccerphiles tell you (over and over and over), practices the Beautiful Game. No team in the world is more artful or more fun to watch.
Well, maybe one. Turns out it was the first game that had me glued to my seat -- specifically the play of Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis. He was everywhere in the second half, as Dallas, trailing 2-0, relentlessly assaulted his net. Reis dived to his left, dived to his right, faced down breakaways and leaped high to pull balls out of the air, preserving New England's win. Yeah, I thought. I'm beginning to get it. The buzz only built as hordes of chanting, flag-waving, drum-beating Brazilian fans poured into the stadium for the nightcap.
And that's when reality bit back. With two national teams playing, I could see that the passing and ball movement were crisper than in the MLS game. But they yielded fewer results: Both teams did impressive things with the ball but rarely brought the action to the net. The frequent lulls turned off the crowd. Fans talked about how many beers they planned to drink in the parking lot. Two men sitting in front of me spent 23 minutes of the first half arguing whether the game was being played on natural grass or field turf. (I Googled it for them; sod was laid over the field turf for this game.) It didn't help that Brazil hadn't come to play. The world's No. 2-ranked team looked listless, falling behind 63rd-ranked Venezuela and getting booed off the field at halftime. What's worse, they didn't even bring Ronaldinho, the one soccer player whose name I know. After the final horn sounded in Venezuela's 2-0 victory, the Brazilian fans continued their chanting and singing and drumming on their way out. As amped up as I was by the noise before the game, now it rang hollow. To me, what these fans really enjoyed was being Brazil fans, not watching their team play. It had to have been. No one could have enjoyed that.
COMPLAINT NO. 4
... Especially on TV
Here's a hypothetical: Your television is on the fritz, and only three channels are coming in clearly. The first is showing a marathon of The Young and the Restless, the second a Senate filibuster and the third soccer. Me, I'm spending the day in Genoa City. A good offside trap just doesn't play well on the tube. Still, I liked the prospect of watching the opener of Euro 2008 (Czech Republic versus Switzerland) at New York City's famed Nevada Smith's, "where soccer is religion" and the tournament is treated like the NCAAs. Could the presence of good beer, a high-stakes match and a motivated crowd make soccer watchable on the small screen? Maybe, but what I got was a 1-0 snoozer and a couple dozen catatonic Swiss. Nevada's did get the beer right.
Perhaps I caught the wrong game, but working on less than four hours' sleep, I wasn't about to stick around to test the theory. Soccer is about atmosphere, and the smattering of Czech fans who bore witness to their team's victory weren't celebrating like it was Liberation Day. "Come back when England plays," the bartender told me. "This place will be rocking."
COMPLAINT NO. 5
Soccer Players Are Wimpy Athletes
They don't run; they jog. They don't fall; they dive. They treat contact like an infectious disease. These were the biggest preconceptions I took into my final game, a highly anticipated exhibition at Giants Stadium between the U.S. and the world's No. 1, Argentina.
It took a little more than 37 minutes of playing time for me to realize that, well, I was a fool. A loose ball had squirted free, rolling toward where I had positioned myself, behind the U.S. goal. Argentina's Javier Mascherano and the U.S.'s DaMarcus Beasley gave chase, Mascherano coming away with the ball after cracking Beasley with a hip check that sent the midfielder careening into the boards. I looked up, certain I would see one of those colorful cards come out of the ref's pocket. No foul. Play on.
The action was pulsating. Heads collided. Bodies soared before crashing violently to the grass. True, there was the occasional head-scratching decision. U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni was ejected in the 71st minute, and I'm still wondering why. But show me one bad call in soccer, and I'll show you a reel of NBA ref Dick Bavetta's greatest hits. For 97 minutes the two teams grinded, pressing the action on both ends, engineering fast breaks from 100 yards away. It was the best game of the weekend. And it ended 0-0. Imagine that.
"The physicality makes it exciting," U.S. defender Heath Pearce told me afterward. "When you're going for the ball and it's between you and another guy, you are going to lay that other guy out to get there first. That's the kind of stuff you really can't appreciate on TV."
Agreed. After five days and six matches I can now say that I enjoy soccer at its best -- though I continue to despise it at its worst. And the biggest problem is that you're as likely to see a mess as a masterpiece. But how do you know going in?
Wait, what's that? The U.S. is playing a World Cup qualifier two weeks from now -- in Barbados? Hold the presses: I think I have one game left!