Let me get this out of the way, before we even get started:
I am an unabashed soccer hater. I just don’t care for it. I’m not interested in it, never have been and, truthfully, probably never will be. I’ve legitimately tried to follow the game, to catch “World Cup fever,” or even the far less contagious Premier League fever, but it just hasn’t happened.
That said, I do want soccer to succeed. Even though I might not like the game, I love sports and I always want to see sports and the great athletes who play them enjoy success. I don’t personally watch a lot of hockey, for example. But I still enjoy those brief few weeks in May when the NHL is national news, and its stars take center stage.
So here are seven reasons why soccer, in its current form, will never matter in the USA. I make this list not out of hatred, but through a hope that some day the game will evolve to a form that is greater than its current state, and become a sport that is interesting not only to myself, but to the millions of casual sports fans who ignore soccer on a daily basis.
Abby Wambach’s last-seconds quarterfinal goal against Brazil was an amazing sports moment; it evoked national pride and pure, fanatical joy even among non-soccer fans like myself. If you watched that play develop, saw the USA’s last hope, propelled by gusto and desperation, soar majestically through the air (and ultimately past the goalkeeper) and didn’t get goose bumps…well, you are dead inside as a sports fan and should probably pursue other endeavors.
But the goal was just that—a moment.
A single, fleeting moment of transcendent greatness at the end of 122 minutes of nothingness.
And most soccer matches don’t have a moment like this to redeem them. For most fans, most matches are characterized more by the nothingness than by exciting moments.
Wambach’s goal was great, and left me feeling happy that I had seen it. But would I sit through an entire soccer match, any match, to get to that point?
I was happy turning on the game late, watching five minutes of “action,” witnessing the comeback and returning to my life of not paying attention to soccer.
After all, in the era of YouTube and ESPN and all the other places I can watch highlights after the fact, why would I want to wait around for 122 minutes for a few seconds of legitimate entertainment?
The Rapinoe/Wambach goal was a tangible, visceral moment that all fans could appreciate. But a nicely struck ball that takes a difficult angle past the keeper for a normal, run-of-the-mill goal is far less entertaining, and not at all memorable.
The average soccer goal may require incredible levels of finesse and skill, but to the naked eye it looks just the same as hundreds of other goals that came before it. It does not appear to be anything special.
Not only do most soccer plays appear to be incredibly ordinary, they are spectacularly nonviolent and nonexplosive. They are therefore, unimpressive.
In the U.S., we have football—a violent, primal game that moves in super-fast, super-athletic bursts.
We also have basketball—a game that combines the cardiovascular athleticism of soccer with pure physicality; running, jumping, blocking, pushing, shoving. It has everything that soccer does and more.
We even have baseball—our country’s own, homegrown finesse sport, which is becoming less and less popular with every passing season.
If Americans are rapidly tuning out from a game that is our national pastime—that is in fact ingrained in the history of our own country—because it is too slow and too boring, why would they turn their attentions to soccer, an imported sport that is even slower and more boring?
In soccer, a red card means an ejection. It also means that the offending player’s team simply loses a man (or woman), and continues the game with fewer players than their opponents.
This is one of the most nonsensical rules in the history of sports, but that’s another article.
The point here is that any sport in which a team can be down a man and still have a very realistic chance of winning is a sport in need of immediate remedy.
If the field were shrunk, a red card would mean severe, immediate consequences. In fact, the consequences would likely be so severe that the rules regarding red cards would likely have to be changed, but hey, the rule doesn’t make much sense anyways.
Shrinking the field would increase scoring, and therefore viewer interest. It would also allow all of the players to be clearly captured with one visible, non-pixilated camera shot, which would increase national player visibility and allow casual fans to gain a better understanding of how plays develop.
ESPN is the behemoth, the monster, the magic genie who can make or break players, owners and even leagues.
If ESPN hyped soccer—regular season soccer, not World Cups—they way they hype football, baseball and hell, even ridiculous self-congratulatory awards shows, it would go a long way towards increasing soccer’s visibility on the American sports landscape.
Take, for instance, the 2011 Women’s World Cup game between the USA and Brazil. This game was a great moment for even casual soccer fans, immediately blew up my twitter and facebook feeds, and has had countless hours of television coverage since.
And it was seen by a whopping 3.9 million viewers.
In comparison, MLB’s All-Star game, with ever-diminishing interest from a constantly-shrinking fan base, drew roughly 11 million.
The most recent U.S. Men’s World Cup games, on the other hand, did quite well…relatively.
The 2010 USA vs. England match drew 17.1 million viewers, while the national squad’s following two games (versus Slovenia and Algeria, respectively) drew 7.5 and 8.6 million.
Even for a non-soccer fan, it doesn’t seem right that at its most popular, most competitive, most globally-relevant level in years, the best soccer team the U.S.A. can muster struggled to outdraw an exhibition game from the country’s third most popular sport.
Ahhhhh, good old excessive flopping…the go-to argument for why soccer sucks.
Soccer players fly around at the slightest hint of contact like they’re being shot at close range with shotguns. By anyone’s account, even diehard soccer fans, it is ridiculous.
It would be hilarious, and significantly less annoying, if it weren’t for the fact that soccer matches (and, in fact, entire tournaments) weren’t routinely decided by which team got more red cards, or suffered crucial bad calls and missed plays at key moments.
In basketball, referees can certainly give a team an advantage if a game is not called evenly. In soccer, officials can play a much greater role. They can hand a game to a team on a silver platter if they so choose, and can conversely make victory nearly impossible.
Flops, bad calls, missed calls and generally fishy behavior by officials is commonplace in soccer—which is frustrating since they can, and often do, completely decide the outcome.
Having referees steal the spotlight from the actual athletes is a joke. It indicates to casual viewers that there is no purpose in taking the game seriously, and can drastically injure the reputation of the sport as a whole.
So, you’re going to play for 90 minutes. And then we’re going to add on some more time. We’re not going to tell you how much, we’ll just tack it on to the end of the game. You’ll know the game is over when we arbitrarily blow the whistle. Don’t worry about it.
In what other sport does the clock expire, yet the athletes keep playing, even though they themselves aren’t sure how much time is actually remaining in the game?
The possible bogus-ness of extra minutes is just one example of the inane rules that make the game annoying to casual fans. I’ve touched on the ridiculousness of red cards already, but offsides calls are another good example.
If you’ve been watching soccer your whole life, you can probably spot a close offsides call fairly easily. But virtually no Americans have been watching soccer their whole lives, so when offsides is called we just shrug our shoulders and say “I guess, if they say so.”
Vague rules are not exactly a great way to captivate new fans. Clarifying these rules would go a long way towards making soccer a more watchable game.
America’s best athletes generally play either football or basketball. If they are more affluent, or happen into the game by circumstance or chance, they might play baseball. But none of them play soccer—at least not seriously.
In a way, it is ironic—soccer’s lack of popularity in the United States means there is less money to be made as a soccer player, which limits the number of elite athletes who play the game, which keeps it from becoming more popular. It’s a vicious cycle and, at this point, American soccer clubs, who could never dream of paying their players as much as the other major sports, are too far behind the eight ball to have a realistic chance at recovery.
It also doesn’t help that the few stars the U.S. have are often unlikeable. Landon Donovan may be great, but there’s something that is immediately annoying and off-putting about him. Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard could be stars if they were more consistent and far less vanilla, but they aren’t.
Every “star” or “next big thing” produced by U.S. soccer is either a massive letdown (Freddy Adu), or is at least somewhat annoying (Donovan). This keeps young, emerging elite athletes from developing a serious desire to become professional soccer players (along with the decreased paycheck they would have to accept), which keeps the sport lagging behind in the national marketplace.
Let's face it: athletically gifted kids want to grow up to be LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, not Landon Donovan or Wayne Rooney.