Soccer is the world's passion.
Young Europeans grow up with dreams of starring in World Cups in their heads, as do their counterparts in Africa, Asia and South America. Sell-out crowds, massive television coverage of games and media devoted to players and teams dominate the international sports scene.
When the U.S. team played Mexico in the Rose Bowl last month, the rabidly rooting fans of Mexico outnumbered U.S. fans by 4-1, they chanted, blew horns, and booed the U.S. team non-stop. Yet professional soccer has been an underwhelming topic of focus with American sports fans. Why this disparity?
The lack of professional soccer enthusiasm is even more bewildering, considering the wide spectrum of AYSO and youth soccer. The first organized team sport that virtually every young child plays in this country is soccer. Anyone driving across the United States on a Saturday morning would experience field after field filled with young soccer players.
A significant part of the social and community life for families with young children revolves around the weekly practices and games. Our three children – Jon, Matt and Katie – played 22 years of soccer between them. They grow up with soccer balls, shin guards, soccer shoes and uniforms as central parts of their lives.
It seems at some point, after youth soccer and prior to high school, enthusiasm wanes and most kids mature in a nation where football, baseball, basketball, action sports, golf and tennis prevail.
Pro soccer does not tend to marry well with the tastes of most adults in this country. We like sports that have a finite chance of success or failure on each play. The batter is out or safe, the free-throw shooter makes or misses the shot, the pass is completed or not. In sports that don't have this element, we like to see lots of scoring.
Our popular consciousness likes action and resolution and we like it in compact units. Baseball has suffered with the short attention spam of the public, but at least it has innings divided into quantifiable parts. We like to see our sports with these short periods of activity followed by commercials and bathroom breaks. We are not used to seeing an hour and a half of continuous play.
American sports fans like the ability to have breaks in the action to go to the kitchen, the bathroom and to talk about what happened on a play. The pacing of soccer games and broadcasts leave most Americans viewers feeling disconnected. Continuous action and little scoring is not at the core of most of our sports. Hockey has continuous action and little scoring, but it is punctuated by fighting and violent collisions.
In 1994, when I represented the U.S. soccer team, which was training in Mission Viejo for the World Cup, they seemed incredibly attractive and marketable. Players like Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola, Cobi Jones, John Harkes, Tom Dooley and Paul Caliguiri were handsome, homegrown athletes who embodied traditional values of self-discipline, courage and teamwork. They were the most successful team on the field that this country had ever seen at that point.
But their success didn't transfer to Major League Soccer, which debuted in 1993. The upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, which started in 2001, had more scoring and a shorter duration. It seemed to be a version of soccer that would finally popularize the sport here.
I went to the producer for ABC which was televising the games and asked if there was any way to modify the broadcasts to fit American tastes. He replied that the rest of the world was in love with the format and I was speaking heresy.
The MILS folded in 2008.
When I recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times suggesting ways to change rules and broadcasts of soccer, the reaction from soccer purists was frightening.
I was afraid my children would grow up fatherless if I mentioned the subject again.
So while the NFL is by two to one the most popular sport in this country, to the rest of the world football means soccer.