The State of Soccer

Patriotism is on the rise. Not the scary kind following national tragedies or raucous political campaigns, but rather the annual bloom of stars, stripes, and hot dogs that heralds the 4th of July. Budweiser has gone so far as to rebrand itself as the quintessential icon of America. While beer faces stiff competition in whisky, pickups, guns, and peanut butter; sports comprise the second great pillar of American society. An American team (only 42% Canadian) just won the Stanley Cup, the NBA recorded its highest ratings since the Space Jam, baseball is apparently still a thing, and we eagerly anticipate beating up on small underdeveloped countries at next month’s Olympics. Americans also love football, but which one?

Last night was a crucial moment for American soccer. Our men’s team contested Argentina for a spot in the Copa America final. While not quite the World Cup, the Copa offered sufficient prestige for a win to demonstrate that we had caught up with everyone else. It was even hosted in Texas, providing a ripe opportunity to prove we’ve finally shed our historical neglect for the world’s most popular sport. Unfortunately, we lost. Badly. Nobody expected us to win against one of the best teams in the world led by one of the most prolific players ever, but we could have hoped for a goal. Or at least a couple shots on goal. Or maybe one off goal. None of which happened.

Despite the tragic finale, our tournament was reasonably successful. We won a few games on a respectable stage and (forcibly) bowed out in the final four. Off the field, attendance and ratings were mixed. Many of the games failed to sell out, perhaps due to the absurdly high price assigned to even the least desirable seats. Alternative explanations include poor marketing in advance of the tournament. I watch and play a decent amount of soccer, but didn’t learn that Chicago would be hosting matches until after the tournament had begun. While Spanish-language networks have done well, Fox Sports’ viewership paled in comparison to the last World Cup. Conceivably, ratings may have suffered competition from the concurrent NBA finals, Stanley cup finals, and Euro cup. The latter provides a stark contrast in soccer fandom, where, if anything, supporters have been a bit too eager.

So where does soccer stand in the American sporting hierarchy? Conventional wisdom suggests it’s somewhere near ice hockey, trailing behind football, basketball, and baseball. Of these, soccer is unique in that few care about professional play within the country. Despite handing out golden parachutes to otherwise retired European stars, the MLS is not a particularly strong league. It suffers from long distances between stadiums, minimal star power relative to other American sports, and lacks a promotion and relegation system that ushers local teams into the limelight. Some markets in the Northwest are thriving, but most American soccer fans tune their attention toward the European leagues where time differences lead to early morning weekend kickoffs that struggle to capture the bar crowd. The saving grace appears to be the US national teams who always garner strong support during World Cups, particularly the last two in which their fans have made up the greatest fraction of foreign attendees.

I emphasize teams because Americans display unique endearment for their incredibly successful female representatives. Our women’s national team enjoys stronger support than any other female team in the world. Last year’s World Cup victory received the highest ratings in American soccer history. There’s one obvious conclusion: Americans like winning. We want to be the best. American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey leagues are universally regarded as the pinnacle of their respective sports, but MLS isn’t. The league’s quality impacts the talent from which the men’s national team draws its players, and the social and commercial success of the sport are contingent upon its development.

The future is promising. Soccer has already cemented itself amongst the most popular youth sports in America. It enjoys particularly high female participation relative to other countries which has undoubtedly bolstered the success of the women’s national team. Critics argue that financial incentives drive many top athletes toward football and basketball, but the competitiveness of far less populous European countries points toward quality of developmental programs over sheer number of talented athletes as the main factor behind international success. The biggest threat to youth soccer may still be monetary. To participate in a sport renowned worldwide for its accessibility, aspiring American players and their parents are asked to cough up thousands of dollars per year in registration and travel costs. These are often justified by emphasizing the prospect of college scholarships, but serve to deter many who would otherwise become players and fans. Either way, with further investment in our youth we might dream that next time we only lose 4-1.