The Time Is Now for Soccer in America

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It may sound odd to say the time is now for soccer in America after the US Men’s National Team was eliminated from the FIFA World Cup by Belgium. However, it is the best time for fans in the USA to embrace the sport. In 2013 America witnessed the best season in 100 years of US Soccer and continued it into the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Soccer has a much bigger place in the world than just a tournament every four years.

For American fans, it is important to understand the history of the game and the state of the sport outside of the borders of the USA. The sport of kicking a ball around could easily have been played for thousands of years before evolving into modern-day football. Where football, what the game is called everywhere but the United States, was first played is up to debate. It is thought that the sport may have first been played in the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. in China, and evidence also points towards Japan and Greece and Rome. The evidence of early versions of the game as it is played today spawn from England during medieval times. The game was much more violent than and was actually banned by King Edward III and King James I of Scotland for being too violent. Both the medieval players and fans watching the action would become so crazed about winning, fights would ensue that led to the banning of the sport.

England has been cited as the birthplace of the modern game. In 1815, clubs from around the country gathered to form a Football Association and develop written rules for the game that all could agree on. However, this may explain the early, lack of interest by the Americans in the sport. British sailors introduced the sport around the world and nations quickly adopted football as a national sport. Due to the British introducing football, America was not excited about the sport and turned elsewhere for a national pastime.

American football and baseball became the national sports or pastimes in the US over soccer. Fans of baseball and US football should realize that the origins of these two American sports are tied to cricket and Association Football and Rugby. All English sports. Baseball has gone global with professional leagues in various countries outside the US. The inclusion of America’s National Pastime was, until recently, a sport in the Summer Olympic, and now has the World Baseball Classic similar to the World Cup. American football has never become a global sport like football. In that lies the rub. Due to the unwillingness of early America to adopt worldwide football as a national sport, the USA soccer program fought an uphill battle from the start. The US struggled to produce enough athletes at the same level of other countries leading to difficulty putting together a competitive squad. This resulted in a history of disappointments in the World Cup and on the international stage until the last couple decades.

As top-level soccer players started to come out of the USA and no top-tier North American professional league was established, the players turned to premier clubs overseas or in Mexico to play. Playing outside the US made it difficult for US fans to watch American players. The birth of Major League Soccer (MLS) hoped to entice some of these players home to the US, but the top American players chose to stay in the other leagues for the higher level of competition. Then, England’s David Beckham left the European leagues for the L.A. Galaxy of the MLS and interest in soccer in the US started to grow to a much higher level. Beckham started to draw some interest from players in other leagues to head over to the young North American league. This leads to why the time is now for the American people to accept soccer as more of a sport than just a tournament that comes around every four years.

Just about every country in the world that has a deep investment in football are able to come together for the game. Countries may be at odds with each other for political or religious reasons and find a way past all of that and agree upon the rules of soccer, sit side by side in a stadium and enjoy their national sport. Yes, you will find teams and fans that do become violent, however those instances of violence typically stem from something more that football.

Football is a universal sport. American football and baseball are not universal sports. With football, worldwide anyone can play just about anywhere with anything as a ball. Plastic bags filled with garbage or some other substitute for a ball and a small open space are the only requirements. Barefoot or not, grass, gravel or concrete will not stop people from playing the game. While club teams for youth have followed the trend of professional football clubs and can be cost prohibitive to participate in, the ability is still there for any group of kids or adults to gather almost anywhere to kick the ball around.

Another set of drawback for soccer in the United States is the American’s expectations for high scoring games and a decisive winner in all of their team sports. Not understanding the game of football as a casual watcher of the World Cup does not allow for US soccer fans to full grasp the beautiful game. The argument is there that if a fan can appreciate a 1-0 no-hitter win in baseball, that a 0-0 performance in soccer should be easy to appreciate. Understanding that football can be enjoyable to watch from the performance of the players and the unbelievable passes, the diving saves by a keeper, even with a draw can be appreciated as much as a low scoring baseball game.

The time may already be here for American fans to now embrace soccer and help to lead the United States to a new level in the sport. Youth soccer in the United States has near the same participation levels as Little League baseball and with MLS starting to draw players from around the world, helping the league to expand each year, fans are given the ability to expand their love of soccer beyond the world tournament. After the World Cup is over, fans can watch over 20 World Cup athletes on various MLS teams, including 10 from the US team. Plus, US fans do not have another four-year wait for the next World Cup. Canada will host the 2015 Women’s World Cup. One could point to the US Women’s National Team performance in the 1999 World Cup and Brandi Chastain ripping her jersey off after scoring the game winning penalty kick as America’s awakening to the beautiful game.

Commentary by Carl Auer

National Geographic