U.S. Men's Soccer: A Sub-Par Sport?

Natalie CammarataContributor IJune 15, 2009

COLUMBUS, OH - FEBRUARY 11:  U.S. Men's National Team poses for a photo before the game against Mexico  during a FIFA 2010 World Cup qualifying match in the CONCACAF region on February 11, 2009 at Columbus Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Top Row L-R: Clint Dempsey #8, Oguchi Onyewu #5, Tim Howard #1, Sacha Kljestan #16, Michael Bradley #4, Carlos Bocanegra #3; Bottom Row L-R: Frankie Hejduk #2, DaMarcus Beasley #7, Brian Ching #11, Landon Donovan #10, Heath Pearce #15. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

If baseball is America’s pastime, then soccer is the world’s. So why isn’t the U.S., a world superpower, a powerhouse in soccer, too?

Soccer is a sub-par sport in the U.S., down there somewhere with hockey. We pay attention when our hometown team is about to win the Stanley Cup. Then we go back to more important things, like Chad Ocho Cinco’s name change and Shaquille O’Neal’s bright future in broadcasting.

So what’s the problem, why don’t Americans like soccer? We seem to lack the learned enthusiasm for the game that Europeans grow accustomed to during childhood. In Europe, as in much of the rest of the world, soccer is the ultimate gift. If you can’t play, you watch. If you can’t watch, well, maybe it’s time you move to the U.S.

And, conversely, those who play soccer in the U.S. are often times better off moving to a soccer-dominated nation. Adam Gazda, who plays soccer for Lehigh University, traveled with his team to play soccer in Italy this past spring.

“Soccer is not just a sport to the rest of the world like football or basketball is to us,” Gazda said, “The towns and businesses will shut down on game days, and you grow up supporting your local team. It’s by far the main sport in all of those countries.”

In addition, soccer is part of the culture for many nations, and it can impact social and political issues as well as affect lives outside of the game itself.

In 1994 Andres Escobar, a member of Colombia’s national team, was shot and killed ten days after the team’s World Cup loss to the U.S.  Criminal reports show that there is evidence to believe the murder was a result of Escobar’s responsibility for an own goal during the match.

“Sure, it’s more dangerous in other nations,” Gazda said, “but that’s because people are passionate. There is passion for soccer everywhere but here.”

To everyone but us, soccer is serious. With that said, you can bet that everyone but us is watching. It’s clear to see the interest that soccer generates around the world by television ratings. European league soccer brings in millions of viewers per match.

That’s not so in the U.S. In 2006 ESPN bought the rights to air Major League Soccer (MLS) games, the main league in the U.S. They introduced MLS Thursdays during primetime. Ratings bombed, and this past January MLS Thursdays was nixed from the lineup.

Dr. David Carr, Professor of Sport Sciences at Ohio University, believes that Americans have a hard time grasping soccer because networks like ESPN don’t focus on the sport.

“Soccer doesn’t work well on television.  The American TV watching public is used to sporting events that have action that takes place in short time segments, like a football play or a pitch in baseball. In soccer, the action is continuous,” Carr said.

MLS did receive, however, a nice bump in TV ratings and ticket sales shortly after international superstar David Beckham joined the MLS team Los Angeles Galaxy.

While Beckham played for Manchester United in England he won six league titles, two FA (Football Association Challenge) Cups and the Champions League title. In 2003 he left to play for Real Madrid, the most successful team in Spanish football. Why bother with rinky-dink American soccer?

It’s not hard to figure out: Becks wanted to build not only his own brand, but also the brand of American soccer. It doesn’t hurt that his former Spice Girl wife had her eye on Hollywood.

But even Beckham can’t seem to muster up the enthusiasm to play for a U.S. team. In March, the Galaxy and AC Milan reached an agreement that will keep Beckham playing on loan for the Serie A team through June 31, instead of returning to Los Angeles right away.

He will return to Major League Soccer on July 1, after a six-month stint in Italy, to play his first Galaxy game of the MLS season. Beckham will have missed the first 17 Galaxy games and will play in the final 13 games of the season.            

More than two years ago, upon the announcement of Beckham’s deal with LA Galaxy, MLS commissioner Don Garber said, "David Beckham is a global sports icon who will transcend the sport of soccer in America."

But then Beckham returned to Europe for longer than half of the MLS season. He wants to be the face of both European and American soccer. Maybe they don’t use the term “too-faced” in good old England.  

In any case, with the half-hearted help of Beckham, soccer in the U.S. is still a growing breed. But some say that MLS is ten years behind European soccer.     

In the United Kingdom, Europe, South America, Africa and Asia, soccer goes unchallenged to any other sport, according to Carr.

Soccer is still in its developing stages, but the U.S. is the perfect place to adopt new sports because we have the infrastructure to do so, Carr said.

Even so, universities like Ohio University don’t have a men’s varsity soccer team.

Because of budget constraints and Title IX, Ohio cut men’s soccer in 1977, and today there is only a club team. Ohio does have a women’s soccer team, however, that began in 1997.

While the sport continues to develop across the nation, the few but mighty soccer fans watch as U.S. Men’s Soccer, the national team, attempt to qualify for the World Cup.

The U.S. plays defending World Cup champion Italy on today at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. Maybe if the U.S. team wins Beckham won’t be so quick to fly back to Italy next season. 

 Either way, U.S. soccer is working its way up in the ranks, despite it being a little behind the rest of the world. Plus, we have so many other sports to attend to that we don’t have the time to devote to soccer. Even if the rest of the world thinks it’s the only sport that matters. Brett Favre’s 45th comeback in the NFL is way more important anyway. Clearly.