There’s no doubt that the popularity of football (soccer) has improved a great deal in recent years in America, but, in large part, it remains a second-tier sport in the minds of many Americans.
David Beckham’s tenure in MLS helped bring the sport closer to the forefront of American sports, but what can be done to continue that trend?
Here are 10 things that can help bring Americans closer to the beautiful game.
Just try to watch the attached video and not smile. I can’t watch it without getting chills.
Americans love both unabashed patriotism and winning.
The U.S. national teams give Americans a chance at both.
After all, where else can I wear this shirt?
With four Olympic gold medals, two World Cup championships and a No. 1 world ranking, the United States Women’s National Team has captured the hearts of the American soccer community.
The U.S. men’s team has been improving, but is not quite yet at the level of a world power.
However, when it does achieve big moments on the biggest stages, such as Landon Donovan’s late goal against Algeria, the U.S. win over Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup or the U.S. 2-0 win over Mexico in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, even Americans who don’t like soccer are drawn in.
In June of 2008, two of my college roommates and I flew out to Los Angeles to watch the U.S. play in its first 2010 World Cup qualifier. We took along another one of our friends who is an intense sports fan but who generally has little interest in soccer.
However, he quickly got into the game (an 8-0 drubbing of Barbados) and was even trying to figure out the Unites States' formation, which he interpreted as a 2-4-4 because the U.S. backs and wide midfielders were pushed so far up the field it looked as if the U.S. was playing with only two defenders.
We also spent much of that weekend monopolizing his television to watch the 2008 Euros, which were in the group stages that weekend, and taking him out to some of the local soccer pubs to watch the late afternoon games.
He hasn’t become an EPL freak or USMNT fanatic since then, but he’s certainly more open to the game than he was before our little man-cation.
The Free Beer Movement, if you haven’t heard of it, is working to “Build American Soccer One Beer at a Time.”
The premise is simple enough. The Free Beer Movement urges you, the soccer fan, to “share your passion for the game” with non-soccer fans by buying them a beer.
As you sit with your family member, friend or coworker having your drink, you watch a game together and “educate” them.
If you want American passion for the game to grow, you must be willing to do some of the legwork yourself. Help be soccer’s ambassador.
Oddly enough, two of the best soccer games I have ever watched both involve my father-in-law, despite the fact that he has rarely shown anything other than a polite interest in my obsession.
In 2011, I was at my in-laws' during the women’s World Cup. On the day we were there, the U.S. was scheduled to play Brazil in what would become one of the most intense and exciting games in the history of women’s soccer.
At the beginning of the game, I settled into the living room (by myself) while everyone else in the house, including my wife’s extended family, sat in the kitchen and out on the deck.
No one showed even the slightest bit of interest in the game, although I had gotten some ribbing about changing into my U.S. jersey just to watch the game.
However, by the end of the game (which was full of dramatics from a red card, a penalty saved, play-acting by the Brazilians, a 123rd minute equalizer and a penalty shootout win for the U.S.), there were a dozen people drawn into the room by the game. And, when the U.S. won in the dramatic penalty shoot-out, all of them were screaming and jumping almost as crazily as I was.
Then, this spring, my father-in-law was at my house for the weekend and, as usual, I got up and put the EPL on. Again, my father-in-law initially showed little interest in the games I was watching.
But, this happened to be the last day of the EPL season, and I was watching the Manchester City-QPR game that would decide the title.
With the final whistle having been blown at the Manchester United-Sunderland game and City and QPR tied at two goals apiece, it looked as if United has the title sealed.
Then, in one of the most dramatic goals in the history of the game, City’s Sergio Aguero scored a 95th minute winner to snatch the title from United.
Although my father-in-law has no idea who Sergio Aguero is, who Manchester City is or what teams even play in the EPL, he was still screaming in disbelief at the finish of that game.
Last year, Fox, which currently holds the rights to the English Premier League in the United States, ran a few select EPL games on its main network channel.
The interesting thing was that even though the games were on tape delay and had already been shown earlier in the day on Fox Soccer Channel, the games still received almost three times the number of viewers as a comparable MLS game.
If soccer is going to grow in America, the matches between the EPL’s “big four,” El Clasico match-ups between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and other big games need to be shown on the main network channels.
MLS Supporters Groups can be a fun way to experience the game and stay connected with your fellow soccer fans.
There is a list of such supporters groups here.
Often, these groups carry on a large range of activities from occupying certain designated sections of a stadium, organizing the cheers and chants, playing the drums prevalent at many MLS games, displaying the banners and organizing off-the-field social get-togethers and pickup games.
Right now there are 19 teams in MLS, with the league actively seeking a 20th franchise. And that has been quite a good level of growth over the last decade from a league that looked like it might fold in the late 1990s.
However, there are still many untapped soccer markets in the United States. Since 2001, when the league folded the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny, the league has had no presence at all in the southeast of the country.
Certainly expansion has to be tempered by other concerns such as the overall quality of play in the league and picking sustainable markets, but, ideally, every major city in America should be able to support an MLS franchise.
The league has done a nice job in recent years of keeping its big market teams stocked with top-notch (at least in terms of fan appeal) designated players.
The New York Red Bulls have Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez and the LA Galaxy have Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and had David Beckham.
But now, with Beckham leaving, Donovan contemplating retirement and many Red Bull fans tired of Rafa Marquez’s shenanigans, MLS will need to once again look abroad to bring in some big names to help draw in more attendance from its less fanatical fans.
Much like the local supporters groups for MLS, the American Outlaws are a supporters group, but with a focus on supporting the United States National Teams.
Although I have yet to become a member (I know, shame on me—I swear I mean to get around to it), their outings look incredibly passionate and like loads of fun.
A list of their local chapters can be found here.
I will admit that I am not a big fan of regular-season MLS soccer.
On the other hand, I love the MLS playoffs.
The difference? The intensity and quality of the games.
With the weaker teams weeded out, the MLS playoffs put on display the best MLS has to offer. And it happens to be a pretty good product.
The next step is to bring the whole league up to that level of play.
It doesn’t take a soccer expert to see that the quality of MLS is not the EPL. And, American soccer is still having an internal struggle over the desire for immediate results and the desire to play beautiful football. This is a struggle that goes all the way from the national team to the youngest players of youth soccer in this country.
The challenge is to produce a product that is visually appealing to draw in both casual fans and hard-core fans that normally eschew MLS.
There’s no doubt that American soccer is moving in the right direction. The fanbase continues to grow, the interest continues to grow, and we have time and demographics on our side.
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