Open Mic: American Soccer's Mission Impossible

Dick ButkusCorrespondent IJune 19, 2008

I want you to look at the photo at the top of this article.

Obviously, anyone who would bother to read this knows enough about soccer to know that it's a picture of Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho. You're probably looking at this picture, and thinking of some magnificent goal or bit of skill you've seen him perform, and you recognize what a great talent Ronaldinho is.

But that's not how I want you to look at this picture.

I want you to look at it through the eyes of the SUV-driving, fast food-eating, NASCAR-loving, xenophobic Americans we all try not to be. Their reaction is probably closer to that of Major League manager Lou Brown when he set his eyes on Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughan the first time—"Look at this f***in' guy."

The first thing they see, obviously, is that this guy is uglier than a Hillary Clinton pantsuit.

There also seems to be nothing terribly athletic about the man in the picture. An uneducated observer would need to be hard-pressed to believe that he was one of the premier athletes in the world.

Above all else, the picture just looks foreign. It's a picture of a guy they've never heard of, playing a game they know nothing about, thousands of miles away from anywhere they'll ever go.

You can go on all day about how the game is too low-scoring, takes too long, has too few breaks, is too slow, has too much flopping, or whatever other excuse you want to concoct for why Americans refuse to fall in love with the Beautiful Game.

However, the answer is far less analytical. Soccer is a foreign game, and in a national sports culture fully saturated with domestic options, there is neither room nor will to add anything more.

I am an American, but in soccer terms, I am all English. My father is English, my family is English, and I've seen and played plenty of soccer when on vacation in England.

I cheer for England because my Dad wouldn't let me root for anyone else. I am a Tottenham fan because my cousins are. I am an American soccer fan, but it has nothing to do with me being American.

It has everything to do with how I'm NOT American.

I cheer for these teams because they don't seem foreign to me. Instead, watching some random Spurs game on a triple-digit channel reminds me of a bunch of places and relatives that I too rarely get to see. You'll find a similar story behind almost every footy-loving American.

However, most of us don't have so strong a connection to another country. Most of us don't have warm fuzzy memories to associate with some far away team. For most people, "getting into" soccer means picking some team to root for from a place they'll never go, buying the most expensive cable sports package, learning about a bunch of foreign players, and watching games at all hours of the day and night.

It's a lot of work.

Sports are supposed to be entertaining, an escape from the challenges of everyday life, so it's crazy to expect people to go out of their way to support something they are so unattached to.

Now, the ideal solution is for the highest levels of the game to come stateside. The dream that the MLS will someday become a dominant international force is a nice thought, but it will never happen for a number of reasons (that's a whole column in itself).

The fact is that "When will soccer make it big in the US?" is a fun question to ask every time a World Cup rolls around, but the answer will always be the same. And, we have no reason to be ashamed, we have our own games to love.

Suppose I had put a picture of Tim Tebow up in the beginning of this article. If I had tried to explain it to my English cousins, they would've said something like, "Wait, people play American football at Universities?"

Poor kids, they don't know what they're missing.