A Makeover For Soccer in America

Patrick LesterContributor IAugust 8, 2009

SANDY, UT - JULY 29: Landon Donovan #10 of the MLS All-Stars smiles after taking on Everton FC during the 2009 MLS All-Star Game at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 29, 2009 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Isn’t he adorable?

That’s Landon Donovan, captain of the L.A. Galaxy and midfielder on the U.S. national team. He’s got about as much star power as any MLS player right now. Come next summer, Donovan’s performance will probably dictate how far the U.S. goes at the World Cup in South Africa.

But his isn’t the best face for the future of soccer in America.

Now a lot of you homers probably just got upset. The U.S. national team’s all-time leader in goals and assists shouldn’t be the poster boy for American soccer? The man who made it clear to that foreign devil David Beckham, and his whole sundrenched posse, that they weren’t welcome here anymore, isn’t someone you want to root for? Are you stupid?

Take it easy killer. Once your heart rate’s down, go back and read it again. Notice, I said “soccer in America”, not American soccer. The two are not the same. One covers the sport in general, the other just the American squad.

Donovan is obviously still the man for the national team. Sure, Clint Dempsey finally remembered how to play against Spain in the Confederations Cup. Sure, Jozy Altidore is turning into a man-beast who looks more like a defensive lineman than a forward. They’re good, yeah, but while they tend to fluctuate, Donovan is consistent.

That doesn’t mean he can make soccer a hugely popular sport in America like baseball, football and basketball. So far, he and the national team have been held in check by a vicious cycle: fan enthusiasm immediately before, during and after the World Cup.

Traditional thinking tells us to try and build soccer in this country from the ground up, using fan interest generated in the World Cup to help boost interest in leagues like the MLS. Maybe that’s worked to a degree. It’s definitely nice to see soccer on ESPN more often than every four years. What it hasn’t done, though, is transform Donovan into Lebron.

That’s because he’s just not that good. He’s much more like Lamar Odom than Kobe. To get fans interested in the States, you have to be the best. We’re spoiled, and we like it that way. The Houston Dynamo are playing the Chicago Fire? I’d rather watch Flavor of Love. The MLS can’t keep up with the NFL or the NBA. It’d be useless to try.

The English Premiere League and Champions League have a lot more muscle. Put those games on ESPN, and people will watch. It’s been proven by contests like this year’s Champions League final that pitted Barcelona against Manchester United. Nearly 1.5 million people tuned it. The quality of play is much better, and American fans recognize that right off.

Soccer is easy to watch. In a time when baseball games come on television later and later every night, and can last for four hours, a battle on the pitch will cost you half that time. And watching the games on an HDTV? It’s like being in the room listening to Mozart write a symphony. See how many individual blades of grass you can pick out.

The play on the field has to catch up with the technology broadcasting it to fans. Americans need to see more international soccer. We need to see Chelsea, AC Milan and Real Madrid. We need to get more invested in the culture we’re only a part of every four years. Put these games on TV, throw on some American announcers, and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Love you, Landon, but give me Messi, Ronaldo or Kaka. I’ll care just as soon as you prove you can hang with the big boys.