Soccer Night in Newtown, PA
When will American soccer begin to overtake the big three American sports—football, baseball and basketball—and compete for America's best athletes?
No discussion in American soccer carries the enormous implications of this question. Soccer fans figure it has to happen, eventually. The soccer haters take it as a sign of the sport's impotence that we're still asking the question.
After the 1994 World Cup shattered tournament attendance records, soccer fans were certain that the glorious rise of the beautiful game in America was imminent.
Major League Soccer attempted to ride this wave of interest to re-launch professional soccer in the U.S. However, MLS soon faltered as attendance dropped and the league was forced to close two franchises in 2001.
The national team's quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup once again created a wave of enthusiasm. This time the strategies of MLS and U.S. soccer focused on building a foundation for slow and steady growth rather than trying to ride the wave of a brief fad.
This strategy is paying dividends as MLS added nine teams and 12 soccer-specific stadiums since its 2001 contraction. The 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals drew larger T.V. audiences than Major League Baseball's World Series from the same year.
Youth soccer is often held up as the best evidence of soccer's potential in the U.S. While youth baseball's numbers continue to decline, youth soccer's numbers continue to rise. Only basketball has more youth players than soccer. Soccer participation in high school has more than doubled.
Now that a successful foundation-building strategy is in place, the discussion can turn to how, or even if soccer can take the next step up the hierarchy of American sports.
Two caveats are necessary before we begin to examine this question. First, among women soccer is already a preferred sport and attracts some of the best female athletes in America. The success of our women's national team is a testament to that fact.
So this question is really about men's participation in sports and that is what we will focus on.
A second caveat is that this discussion isn't new. Several well-worn tropes about soccer's image and its incompatibility with American culture bear some kernels of truth. We'll include some of these but hopefully acquire a little more insight into why these issues persist and what the future might bring.
If we want young athletes to choose soccer over other sports they need to see that there is high-level competition to shoot for. They need to see the game live, hear the crunch of a tackle, the thump of a kick and the roar of the crowd.
Given the high level of youth participation in soccer relative to attendance figures at pro soccer matches, it is obvious that a large proportion of youth soccer players do not make it out to see pro games.
Pro soccer games are done in less than two hours, perfect for little people with short attention spans.
The professional soccer leagues should be giving away tickets to every youth soccer player in their marketing area. It doesn't have to be league matches and in fact it might even be better if this were done with cup matches or tournaments like the CONCACAF Champions League.
Attendance is always spotty at these matches. Seattle only drew 14,000 for a Champions League quarterfinal home match against a first-place Liga MX side. It turned out to be an outstanding game as the Sounders roared back from a three-goal series deficit to win a place in the semifinals.
Now imagine that stadium packed with 30,000 or 40,000 youth soccer players with their parents and coaches. That game could've left a big impression on every young athlete at the game.
Pro clubs will, of course, say they need to sell tickets to make money. But how much more money could they make off concessions, souvenirs and parking with all of those "free" tickets? It would certainly be a lot more money than they make off a spotty crowd.
Plus, the marketing impact would be huge for the pro club with the throngs of fans having a good time at the stadium. How many of them would be back for a league game with a paid admission?
This video is of an under-six girls' team playing in a three-versus-three tournament. They scored 51 goals in six games.
Contrast that with how 99 percent of the youth soccer leagues in America structure their games. Most do not keep scores at this age group and many, including one that I am currently on the board of, do not keep scores for any recreational soccer.
Sure, the kids and parents know the score and when referees are introduced at the U7-U8 level they write down scores on their game report so they get paid. But how many youth soccer clubs record the scores or keep standings?
Our recreational league doesn't award any trophies, just participation medals that everyone gets all the way up to U15.
There is a good argument for not making the final score the focal point of the game, because we are trying to encourage kids to have a fun positive experience doing physical activity. In other words, we are telling them that soccer is "game" and not a "sport."
The "select" or "competitive" leagues are where the sport is played, recreational soccer is just a game.
While that is fine and dandy for stuffing our children with even more positive self-esteem—as if they need any more—it sets in their minds the impression that the game they are playing is not taken seriously.
I don't know how many times I've heard, "but it's just rec soccer." Well of course it is just rec soccer, because that is how we define it for them.
The bottom line here is that the only athletes exposed to the sport of soccer are those that can afford to play select club-based soccer, an expensive and time-consuming process. But every year I see really great athletes in recreational soccer who will likely never have the chance to play select soccer.
Do we just write them off?
Some kids' parents can't afford the time or the money for select soccer. Some of these kids don't develop athletically until puberty fully develops their bodies. By then there is no hope of making a select side that has been playing and training for five or six years.
These athletes drop out of soccer and join other sports with their new bodies.
At this year's NFL Scouting Combine there were a number of fantastic athletes who had never played a snap of American Football until they entered college. These men all switched from other sports and some are destined for fat bank on draft day.
Has anyone ever heard of someone who has never played the game before walking on to a college soccer team and then going pro?
U.S. Mens National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn't on the job long before he was telling Americans what was wrong with our soccer culture.
One of the key themes that keeps coming up in his interviews and speeches is the need for unorganized opportunities to play soccer. A chance for athletes to just throw out a ball and have at it.
Basketball is probably the most played pick-up game in the U.S. One result of that is more interest in the sport by those who will never play at a high level. Another is the creativity, flair and comfort level a good athlete can develop when away from his coach's commands.
It is surprising that more soccer clubs don't sponsor weekly pick-up games. Bring out the parents and their kids and play informal games without a coach yelling at them for making the wrong decision.
The end result will be more players who are interested in the game, which means more general interest in the game, and the further development of our best athletes into soccer players.
By far the biggest complaint leveled by soccer's critics in the U.S. is that players are too soft and fall down any time an opponent looks at them.
And those complaints are not without some merit.
To their credit, U.S. soccer fans generally despise players who go down and won't stand up to a physical challenge. The Portland Timbers crowd will boo an opponent who looks like he is play-acting for the referee.
On the national team, you never see an American player rolling around on the ground in fake agony like the Italians seem to be trained to do from birth. I once saw Jermaine Jones go over to one of the new German-American players who was on the ground for too long, have a quick word with him, and then pull him up.
"They don't do it this way over here," he seemed to say.
Say what you will about U.S. soccer culture, but at least we got this right.
Unfortunately that is not the image in most people's minds. My son and his teammates tell me that the other kids at school tease them that soccer is a game for wimps. My lads know the truth, soccer is a contact sport, but truth and perception are often not the same.
Forget handing out yellow cards for "simulation," or fines and suspensions after a match, FIFA needs to institute a directive to all of their officials not to call a foul if the player doesn't try to keep his feet. No more throwing the hands and feet up in the air, you try to stay up or you don't get the call.
Nothing else will change that, and athletes will continue to shy away from soccer rather than being teased for playing a sissy game.
In 2009 the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a survey of Americans' participation in selected sports activities. From the survey they were able to parse out sports participation by income level.
The data isn't surprising and is something most U.S. soccer observers understand very well. This table gives the percentage of Americans playing each major sport and earning incomes at the two ends of the income distribution: incomes less than $35,000 per year and incomes more than $100,000 per year.
|Sport||% < $35k ||% > $100,000|
|Basketball||18.3 %||24.2 %|
|Football||34.8 %||17.5 %|
|Soccer||16.3 %||33.8 %|
Soccer is an upper-income sport, which is exactly the opposite of the way it is in the rest of the world. In soccer cultures the sport is enjoyed more by blue-collar than white-collar fans. The poor kids growing up in some of the world's largest ghettos dream of escaping by playing soccer.
One surprising aspect of these data is the fact that football, the sport that requires the most expensive equipment, is played more by people with low incomes than a sport where you only need a ball.
What is football doing right? A student can play football for free at his school. He can ride a bus to practices and games. They give away or loan out the equipment. The school provides all of the expensive protective gear and training equipment.
By contrast, competitive soccer isn't really played in the schools. There is wide variation in that, of course, but by and large the most competitive soccer is played at the club level, which is a very expensive proposition.
Elite coaches discourage their players from playing for the schools. College scouts don't hit the Thursday night high school games, they hang out at the weekend tournaments.
Can you grasp how upside-down this is? The most expensive sport has higher participation among low-income people than the cheapest sport. And the cheapest sport has higher participation among upper income people than the most expensive sport.
Want to attract more athletes to soccer? Make it free.
Everyone keeps saying, "just give it time." But it is hard to be patient with soccer's development in the U.S. when sports idiots like Jim Rome use their own TV platform to regularly trash the seeming lack of progress.
But the tortoise will win.
The reason is a simple sociological explanation: social networks will eventually be a pathway to change peoples perceptions, then their attitudes and finally their behavior.
Ever wonder why baseball remains such a popular sport? I mean, we're talking about a game so lacking in action that a German friend of mine who watched a game with me witnessed the batter step out of the box, heard the announcer say "the batter calls time," and jumped out of his chair and screamed at the T.V., "Time out! Time out from what!"
The reason baseball retains its popularity among adults even while its youth numbers drop faster than the Mets in May, is because our perceptions of and attitudes toward it are passed down from one generation to the next.
It is "America's pastime" and a day at the ballpark with dad is an exciting, if tediously long, outing. As we grew up the men in our lives talked about baseball, watched baseball, bought us baseball hats and gloves, and signed us up for little leagues. No one asked any questions because this is just what we did.
My generation might be considered the first soccer generation. We had a full youth program starting in first grade (they did it by grades in my town back then). The first elite soccer clubs were forming, and some of our parents didn't mind signing their kids up for the weird sport.
Perhaps they hated the jocks from their high school and figured soccer was a way to avoid the cretins. Maybe they had an immigrant neighbor with a passion for the game. Maybe they just liked to buck conventional society.
Whatever the reason, youth soccer started and took off. With each successive generation, the perception of soccer is changed that much more.
Not overnight, cultural shifts happen slowly as the new meanings and attitudes spread through social networks. My children are growing up in a house where the sport is valued and the parents take their kids out to a different ballgame.
My children will influence their friends and eventually their own children. But these changes take time as the new meanings and attitudes work their way through our social networks to eventually hit a critical mass of people.
We are just reaching that critical mass and it really is only a matter of time before soccer leapfrogs baseball, then "the other" football and eventually, maybe, basketball.
Put all your money on the tortoise, to win.