Friday, February 18, 2011
Soccer in America
So, I haven't written here in a week, out of a lack of time (homework and such) and a lack of things to write about, in sports. It's the February doldrums right now- we're not at March Madness yet, the NBA season has just reached the All Star game, and the NHL is just starting to heat up. (The Sabres, thankfully, have put themselves back into playoff contention, rattling off a 4-1-1 record in their past 6, and playing improved offensive hockey. Especially Drew Stafford, who had successive hat tricks. The shootout game against Montreal on Monday was just awesome). But anyway, it's a relative dead period in sports (and no, Spring Training DOES NOT count, ESPN. Stop showing me this crap). But I started reading David Peace's The Damned Utd and now I've been thinking. What is it that makes Americans so adverse to soccer? People loved Wayne Rooney's wonder goal against Man City, but you didn't see many clamoring to watch a full game. Let's dive in.
Ok, most of us know the common argument- the game is low scoring and boring (to casual fans). To which I respond, isn't baseball the same way? Yet it remains popular and embedded in our national consciousness. I think it goes deeper than that. Soccer is a game that the US has not been historically good at, doesn't always reward brilliant play, and doesn't reflect our own national history in the same way (sorry to get all AP US on you guys here). Some of these can change (like the USMNT's success), others can't, and will always be a thorn in the side of soccer's popularity in America, unless American sports fans go through a radical change in how they watch and appreciate sports.
Point 1, that the US hasn't been historically good. As proven with the Blackhawks in Chicago just last year, people will pay attention to a team if they are really good and have the opportunity to win the championship. (And, on the flipside, if you're past halfway through the season and the team is not in the playoffs if the season ended today, well, then, a lot of people are going to start focusing elsewhere...*coughcough THE BULLS coughcough*. Don't think I haven't noticed, Chicago.) The US Men's National Team, however, hasn't made it past the quarterfinals (2002) and didn't make the world cup after 1950 until 1990. So, for most of the 20th century, they have been afterthoughts. In the 21st century, they've been a team good enough to make it out of the group in World Cup Play (except the disaster in 2006) and generally hang with the big guns of international soccer (like the Confederations Cup win over Spain, followed by the loss to Brazil after going up 2-0 at half). Americans don't want a scrappy team that can just hang with the best. We want to be up there, fighting for World Cups. And until that happens, there will still be a large segment of the population who aren't going to pay attention.
Point 1.5-A short one. There are many soccer 'fans' in America who follow the archetype set by Stuff White People Like, that is, pretending to like soccer to seem more sophisticated. As Jeff Winger on Community said it best, "I'm a stylish American. I've been forcing myself to like soccer since 2004". So there's another problem with soccer in America.
Point 2, that brilliant play is not always rewarded. In a game like (American) football, every good possession usually results in at least a field goal, allowing teams not playing their best to at least be rewarded for being able to move the ball. If a team is playing really well, they're going to be scoring touchdowns on almost every drive. The score they rack up is indicative of how well they've played. Soccer can be completely different. A team that plays with brilliant build up, great passing and stonewall defense can still be shut out or held to one goal, depending on the quality of finishing, the goalie, and the opposing defense. So, oftentimes, great soccer is not rewarded with goals, or with many goals. Spain, for instance, won the world cup playing plenty of 1-nil games, but they were playing at an exceptional level. But Americans don't want to see hard work and brilliant set up unrewarded- the lack of payoff is too much. We have an ingrained sense of deserving something for a job well done, and soccer doesn't always reward a job well done. For some reason, people in America don't appreciate low scoring, well played games. To quote Community again,Professor Duncan, the obsessed Soccer fan, says "This game is really exciting through the first half", Jeff Winger replies, a look of boredom on his face "Yeah, really exciting, 0-0". And that's just the issue. A 0-0 game can be exciting. Maybe because we're a highlights culture that is always looking for the 'peak' of the event we're watching, we can't appreciate everything else that's happening in a well played game with little to no scoring. (I'd say Hockey has the same issues, but people are more willing to celebrate a hockey goalie's brilliant performance than a soccer goalie's.)
Point 2.5. Americans are very good at hating European things. Soccer fits right in there.
Finally, on to my history nerd interpretation of the issue, point 3. (American) football is a game that represents our past perhaps better than any other sport. When we were settling the frontier, there was a belief that we had Manifest Destiny. God himself wanted America to keep moving Westward (and, even at one point, he wanted us to have a sizable chunk of Mexico. Politicians are very wont to change God's will). Football mirrors this Manifest Destiny on every possession. You are given the ball at a certain point, and you are to gain territory, one chunk at a time. First and ten, take that, and take more, until eventually you've reached your own Pacific Ocean, the endzone. Take that, too. Kick it off, and defend your territory (the Revolutionary War, the Alamo, the Civil War- all instances of defending your territory). This a game that mirrors our country perfectly. As for other sports, Baseball is a game that represents the innocence of our childhood, gives teams alternating possessions (take this half inning! take the game! close out the enemy!), and, from its age and everyone waxing poetic about it, is also deeply American. Basketball has more points, rewards brilliant play, and features more highlights. But back to the history part. Soccer is uniquely European. Europe is a multi polar continent, meaning that power, throughout its history, has been distributed through out the whole nation, with an ebb and flow of who is the most powerful, leading up to the present, post Soviet Union continent we have now. Soccer has an ebb and flow to it's own possession and who has the upper hand. Similar to European history, it's very...liquid. Teams are usually constantly trading the ball and who has the momentum, there can be little flukes that win games, and it is rare to see teams absolutely dominate a team to a point where they have no chances and no period of play, however small, where they have the upper hand, just like the multiple iterations of European polar continents that have existed. (American) Football can have this domination (lord knows I've seen enough Bills games), but when two evenly matched teams are playing, there is still a sense of concrete possession, like that of our own history.
Now team A has the ball, and they will attempt to bring it across their very own America. Soccer is teams fighting it out for 90 minutes, trading offensives, blistering a war across their very own Europe.