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Will US’s soccer ideologies survive the move to the mainstream?

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When I moved to the United States from Italy a little over eight years ago, one of the several motivating factors behind the decision was the desire to take a break from soccer.

Covering Serie A in Italy for eight years, pretty much all-day, every day, took me to the brink of soccer burn out. The move to Florida, covering the NFL, NBA, golf, tennis and cricket in the Caribbean, was a fresh challenge and given that Americans didn’t care much about soccer and MLS was something of a sideshow to the main U.S. sports, the game I had been obsessed with since a kid, would take a backseat for a while.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

Once I started to investigate the soccer scene in America, I discovered that while not many Americans cared about the game, those that did really cared. What was unique was that the obsessiveness was very different from the kind of all-consuming passion for a team that drove Italian, Hungarian or English fans. In America, so many of the soccer people I met – especially fans, bloggers and journalists, were intensely committed to the game. In particular they were dedicated to what I’ve come to call ‘The Project’ – building the sport in the U.S, growing its influence, creating converts. This was evident in the excitement generated by a good attendance for an MLS game, a good television rating for a national team match, a celebrity showing interest in soccer. Behind every blog post or tweet relating to a bit of positive news was the often-unstated but always present, defiant sentiment of “So no-one cares about soccer in America huh?”

This hasn’t changed much in the past eight years. The topics that generate the most debate amongst American soccer people are issues to do with the growth of the game and the structure of the game, The Project. Not, as in most of the world, refereeing decisions, why a coach should be fired or a certain player benched.

Instead there are endless debates over MLS expansion markets, the merits of promotion and relegation, the league’s calendar, television ratings, natural grass versus artificial turf, attendance, and comparing MLS to other leagues around the world. These domestic zealots have little respect for Americans who just enjoy watching the game and who tune in to follow the Premier League on Saturday morning and catch the Champions League highlights in midweek. The ‘Euro Snobs’, who for whatever reason aren’t interested in MLS, are considered to be traitors to The Project.

I confess that I find most of these debates fascinating. I also find something very admirable in the commitment many make to building the sport in the country with a passion that is by no means any less genuine or intense than that of the Italian ultra or the loyal fan of a lower division English club.

But it seems as if soccer, for the hardcore in the U.S, is almost an ideology – it is the better future for America. It’s globalized, its cosmopolitan, and, perhaps, you sense, seen as more sophisticated than American sports. It certainly feels a little more liberal and the reaction to some frat-boy, college football fan type behavior within the American Outlaws certainly would support that view. Perhaps it is no coincidence that two of the more prolific and obsessed people I’ve come across in the ‘scene’ have backgrounds as organizers and activists in Democratic party politics.

That is not to say that this commitment to soccer is, in itself, necessarily ‘left-wing’. The same kind of fanaticism can be found on the American right in libertarian politics and, for that matter, on the religious right. There is certainly something Evangelical about the desire to convert the country to the one, true sport. In fact, you could argue that wherever there is a ‘cause’ in America, you find this kind of ultra-commitment and subscription to some form of an ideology.

Like all of these scenes, the American soccer world has its own language that is barely understandable to people from outside the milieux. If you are not convinced, try talking about ‘pro/rel’ or ‘Eurosnobs’ to someone who isn’t a hardcore supporter of The Project and take note of the blank or puzzled looks you will receive.

Within the scene though is also another quasi-political trend that is less easy to pigeonhole but which is certainly present. It could be called ‘soccer-nativism’ or ‘American soccer exceptionalism’. It is evident when Bruce Arena says American soccer has nothing to learn from Europe. It was there in the sneers and sniping when David Beckham arrived in MLS. It is constantly present in the debates over Jurgen Klinsmann and the scrutiny of his ‘philosophy’ or supposed ‘European mindset’. I suspect it is also present in discussions about dual-nationality players on the national team and foreign coaches in MLS. It is certainly there when it comes to comments about accents in television coverage. It is the sense that ‘we are building soccer in America and it is going to be ours, it is going to be American soccer’.

This trend is just as committed to The Project, if not more so and its distrust of the role of foreigners, shouldn’t, I stress, be mistaken for racism or any kind of xenophobia. If anything, it is more akin to protectionism, which is certainly not something alien to the political left. It wants American soccer jobs for American soccer people. And it has been pretty successful as a glance at the list of coaches in MLS or commentators and analysts on American television would illustrate.

What makes the Klinsmann situation so fascinating is that he upsets both trends within the American soccer world. He questions MLS and the direction of the game’s progress and he obviously doesn’t believe that Americans can learn nothing from the rest of the soccer world. Yet in his own way, Klinsmann is also intensely committed to The Project and the overall belief that soccer is going to, sooner or later, break through to the mainstream.

When that happens, and I firmly believe that the demographic and cultural trends in this country mean that soccer will become one of the major sports, the ideologues will be pushed to the margins. We can see this already with the supporters of the national team and the more popular MLS clubs. Increasingly, the big crowds behave like Americans fans do at any other sport. They tailgate, they drink beer, they cheer on their team and jeer the opposition. The bigger the crowd in American soccer, the more mainstream the culture is.

And away from the online activists, the bloggers, the podcasts and the soccer media, increasingly, most people who like soccer in America are, I suspect, fairly mainstream people. There are sports fans who probably watch the NFL and the NBA sometimes, catch the odd match from the Premier League on television, maybe go to the occasional MLS game if they have a team nearby, and who cheer on the national team.

And the more mainstream the game becomes, the more corporate it will surely become too because American sport is, of course, extremely corporate. The American soccer decision-makers will embrace the globalized aspect of the game not out of any ideological commitment but because it makes business sense. The more money that pours into the game, the more willing and able American soccer will be to hire the best in the business in an attempt to be the best in the business.

That process will be a testing time for those who have long been ultra-committed to The Project. Perhaps the more hipsterish elements will slowly fade away from a sport which has become too popular. They liked ‘early MLS’, the first two albums before it sold out. The others will probably, like the game itself, gradually move away from the debates over the game’s structures and culture and simply accept what soccer becomes here (whilst probably enjoying the discomfort of the soccer-haters as the game invades their traditional spaces).

American soccer will, I suspect, become both more American and at the same time more ‘normal’ to the rest of the world. As that happens, the subculture of the niche sport will either transform or die out. It may be a painful process for some.

Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.

 

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21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Guy

    April 10, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    I enjoyed the article, but you lost me when you tried to tie protectionism to a single political ideology. Historically, protectionism has been its own ideology. It has been espoused over the years, for various reasons, by liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, you name it.

    Nonetheless, fine job. 🙂

  2. miguel torres

    April 10, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    In most of the rest of the world, four or more boys are hanging around in their neighborhood, and a soccer game breaks out. As long as that is not a widespread occurrence in America, this country will never be on the par with Europe and Latin America since basic and many advanced soccer skills are acquired in spontaneous play with friends from a very early age.

    • Modibo

      April 14, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      This may have been true 30 years ago, but youth worldwide are becoming more sedentary just like American kids. It’s also why the national soccer curricula of federations worldwide – including England and Germany – have been revised out of an awareness that kids are no longer playing spontaneously in the street. They’re being taught soccer by adults, who in turn are trying to take a programmed activity and recreate (or at least not kill) the spontaneous elements of it for the kids they teach. Note also that club youth academies are recruiting younger and younger kids, taking them away from the street game.

      It’s very interesting, though, that like the women’s game, the article did not mention youth soccer, which is often the theme of soccer culture articles about the US.

  3. Dan Brown

    April 10, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    I enjoyed the article and pretty much agree with its sentiments.
    I couldn’t help but wonder what your alias might be on Big Soccer though ;P

  4. TageSavage

    April 10, 2015 at 2:29 am

    I just like rooting for my home team. (When I root- I root for the…) How big MLS gets, doesn’t matter to me. To hell with “the Project” ideology. I’m just glad the league hasn’t folded.

    I also watch the NBA and MLB. The great thing about Capitalism is choice of the product. MLS is slowly but surely getting the value it deserves in the American Sports marketplace.

    • Flyvanescence

      April 10, 2015 at 6:27 am

      Unrelated question:

      Is your user name derivative of the band name Savatage?
      Because that would be pretty beast.

  5. Sucker_for_Sounders

    April 9, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    This is really a great article (although I think the last bits trail into a potentially unnecessary speculation, the thoughts are so strong and fresh here until that point) I appreciate you really taking on this subject by looking at how the individual mindsets of American fans have sort of stirred a larger movement. I admittedly feel very engaged in the day to day American soccer fandom, I wish for and work for all the sort of factors you’ve mentioned, proliferation and progress of the game domestically, but it’s rather fascinating and eye-opening to view it on a macro scale. I think it’s important to analyze and even critique it this way. Thanks for helping open up this conversation, your insight is wonderful.

  6. SeattleRed

    April 9, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    I am absolutely looking forward to soccer becoming mainstream. However, I don’ think it will be a particular brand of soccer foreigners, immigrants, or “Euro-snobs” will particularly like.

    America is a country full of innovators and we don’t particularly like doing what everyone else does. Think metric system, social services, wealth gap, etc. So we will modify a sport to appeal to the American masses.

    Anyway, when soccer, (hell, we can’t even call it football because of the NFL, which in all seriousness, should be called throwball, but I digress…), succeeds, I’ll look forward to its future four 22.5 minute quarters, commercial breaks every 10 minutes, carbon fiber helmets and boots, penalty boxes, and helium filled balls made of laboratory-grown skin!

    Go Liverpool!

    • Kei

      April 15, 2015 at 12:43 am

      Lolz. If that really does end up being the future of American soccer, then count me out.

  7. Forber

    April 9, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    I’m one of the people this article is referring to. I like the growth of the game at present, but at the same time I kind of don’t want it to become as mainstream as the other sports. Once MLS becomes dominated by the same sort of unaffordable ticket prices, rampantly overbearing commercialism, self-entitled jerks, and shirtless beer burping cup on forehead smashing frat boys, a significant part of its appeal will vanish.

    • NaBUru38

      April 9, 2015 at 9:19 pm

      Be sure that MLS executives are trying their best to have unaffordable ticket prices and rampantly overbearing commercialism.

    • ajksoccer

      April 16, 2015 at 5:22 pm

      And let me guess, you’re a timbers fan?

  8. ridge mahoney

    April 9, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    America is still in the process of discovering soccer. Most of these “discussions” are rooted in emerging awareness fueled by the instantaneous give and take of the Internet. The U.S. soccer culture is not nearly as ripened as it is in most countries.
    I disagree with the assertion that most American fans are focused on the national team programs, Klinsmann, and larger issues. Go on any team site or attend any fan gathering and you’ll see/hear plenty of outrage, angst, joy, etc. about glories and injustices, real and perceived, pertaining to results, signings, firings, etc. In the minds of most, The Project takes up the dead space between games not filled by JK’s periodic grandstanding. Altidore’s scoring, Bradley’s passing percentage, Yedlin’s crosses, Dempsey’s stats, etc. are what the fans care about.
    Funny that all these words about soccer in America don’t include anything about women and the World Cup about to be played. That Project is going pretty well yet the world is catching up.
    But a good piece nonetheless.

  9. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    April 9, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Good article! But what do you feel about what’s going on with an outsider’s perspective? Who do you think is right? I would be interested to hear your opinions on what you think MLS should do.

  10. Dave B.

    April 9, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    I’m not sure where you get the idea that people following MLS do not care about ref decisions and tactics and player qualities. Such discussions go on all the time, both on MLS’s own website and on various supporter group comment boards. Heck, there is a weekly video blog looking into ref calls that should or should not have been made.

    As for soccer fans becoming like other sports fans, I’ll believe you when I hear 65K of people at a Seattle Seahawks game chant and sing and bring TIFO’s like the the 65K at a Seattle game. Until then, MLS supporters will remain very different from the rest of North American sports.

    • ribman

      April 9, 2015 at 6:28 pm

      If Seattle is such an awesome soccer town build a soccer specific stadium, worst pitch in the league

      • jtm371

        April 9, 2015 at 8:09 pm

        Plastic pitch for Mickey Mouse Soccer League. 🙂

        • Canadien Bacon

          April 10, 2015 at 1:44 pm

          Ligue 1 must also be a “Mickey Mouse League” as Lorient has artificial turf.

          • jtm371

            April 10, 2015 at 7:42 pm

            Plastic pitches are Mickey Mouse.

      • ajksoccer

        April 16, 2015 at 5:20 pm

        Why build a 25k capacity SSS when you can fill a stadium with 65k? They could play on astroturf and still wouldn’t seriously pursue a new stadium.

  11. Tom B.

    April 9, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Spot on. Many people I know (both soccer fans and soccer haters) came to mind as I read this piece. Really nice reflection on soccer culture in the U.S.

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