Is Soccer Popular In The United States, Or Not?

NEW YORK - JUNE 12: Soccer fan Anil Shahi (R) and others watch the U.S. vs. England World Cup match beneath the Manhattan Bridge June 12, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Soccer fans around the world are cheering for their home countries on the second day of World Cup action. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Let’s face it. We soccer fans live in a bubble. We eat, live and breathe soccer. So much so, that it’s sometimes hard to get a perspective on how popular, or unpopular, the sport is in the United States.

I really enjoy speaking with people who aren’t rabid soccer fans to hear their perspectives on the beautiful game. It often brings me down to earth and I get to better understand what the average American, who may not be a soccer fan, thinks.

For better or worse, soccer becomes an American mainstream topic every four years. No matter how much soccer grows, many of the same questions and same complaints about the sport are raised.

Luckily, in the past week, I’ve had a chance to experience what people in the street and in the press are saying about soccer, and the observations are quite revealing, so I thought I’d share a few with you.

First, The Guardian published a story today entitled Horns Stay Silent For the Underdog USA, which includes a couple of choice quotes from me and some surprisingly pessimistic viewpoints from Jason Davis, a red-blooded American soccer blogger for Match Fit USA. Ed Pilkington, The Guardian’s New York correspondent, penned the piece but it feels as if he’s disappointed by the response so far from American and its residents in terms of getting into the World Cup. I discussed this with Pilkington on the phone a few days ago when he interviewed me. He mentioned how he sees very few flags or cars honking horns in New York when a team scores a goal. My response was that it’s not part of American fan culture. Americans love their flags probably more than any country in the world, but they don’t take to running through the streets or honking the horns in delight. Americans are more likely to party inside — whether it’s their homes or the many bars that are showing games.

Second, I spoke this morning with the exterminator my wife and I hire to keep those pesky Florida bugs out of my home. My wife started talking about the World Cup to him to get a sense for whether he’s been watching any matches. He’s not a soccer fan, but he admitted he turned on the England against USA game for a few minutes to see what the fuss was about. But when my wife asked him whether he was going to watch the rest of the first round games featuring the US, his response was surprising but enlightening. He replied “I heard that the US has no chance of winning the World Cup, so I’m not bothered to watch it.”

Americans are extremely competitive and always want to excel in everything they do. So, rather than watch a sport where the US will not succeed, the exterminator (and presumably countless other Americans) want to watch something else, something they can win.

Third, I’ve heard the following two arguments aimed at soccer too many times to remember. The first is that soccer is boring. The second is that soccer is low-scoring. Both criticisms are related, but they are difficult to argue against. I’ve had the good fortune to be interviewed by two radio stations this week about the World Cup and the way I positioned the answer was to say that soccer is a sport that is extremely different than most American sports. The closest resemblance is ice hockey and, even then, it’s nothing like the NHL. Soccer is a team sport played by 11 players on each team. It’s not a sport like American Football where it’s much easier to score. And it’s not a sport where one goal equals six points.

Non-soccer fans in the United States can be pretty dismissive and harsh against soccer when given the opportunity. But a shining light for me has been my week at Wowies, the sports bar in Boca Raton which is where MLS Talk is hosting its official World Cup viewing parties. While sitting in the booth working on my coverage of the World Cup, I’ve found myself eavesdropping on the conversations at the bar where there is a mix of soccer fans with some that know a little about the sport and others who have no clue and aren’t interested in it. Among all of the topics discussed at the bar this week, the World Cup has been the most prevalent. Yes, it’s a World Cup sports bar (at least for the next three weeks), but it’s a typical (but nicer) American sports bar. It’s not a soccer pub. However, the conversations have been surprisingly positive about soccer and many of the patrons sitting at the bar seem genuinely interested in how well the USA does but in the tournament itself. After living in this country for more than 25 years and having to endure so much negativity aimed at soccer, it’s refreshing to hear positive things being said about the sport.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so positive in the story. The TV ratings back up my belief. Now the most important thing is for the United States men’s national team to come through with their end of the bargain and to progress out of Group C. Then, mainstream America (and perhaps my exterminator) will become more interested.

What do you think? Is Davis too pessimistic? Am I too optimistic? What are you hearing from people on the street? Is soccer getting bigger in this country where you can see evidence with your eyes? Share your opinions in the comments section below


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