Why I Love the Un-American Football

I started this blog post literally months ago. And I’ve tried to write a similar post for the past two years only to abandon each of them. This one is the closest I’ve come to success, and I’ve soldiered on revising and editing and fact checking. With the World Cup happening, I believe now is the time for me to publish it.

It was at Georgia Tech in 2002 that I met David. We weren’t good friends, or even close friends really, but we did hang out from time to time and during those times I discovered David was ‘weird.’ Now, being ‘weird’ at Georgia Tech is saying something. It was (and most likely still is) largely a geek college with a heavily skewed male to female ratio. I mean, to be fair, I was weird at Georgia Tech too. But David was ‘weird’ because he was, well, he was a die hard soccer fan. Die hard despite lacking access to downloaded recordings of games or infinite satellite channels for European broadcasts. He had just grown to love the sport with what he had been able to catch and follow online over a decade ago. He was always checking ESPN’s soccer coverage website. Like I said, he was ‘weird.’

Of the things I regret in college, I regret not spending more time with David and not getting to know soccer through his eyes. He was an American kid who had fallen in love with a sport which was firmly entrenched as the least popular professional sport in America. Rather than learning to love the game through David, I took another path.

My education in soccer first started as a kid when I played on a YMCA team. I wasn’t good. My earliest experience was in an in-door soccer league in Kansas City. I have no real memories of it but I have heard a story which involves the mob of kids on the field chasing the ball and I eventually collapse on the ball and curl up over it, determined to defend the ball in the only way I know how. When viewed as an action by a four or five year old child, it’s adorable. So focus on that angle.

Soccer required an athleticism that I lacked such that I was often put on defense where the coach’s instruction was “stay near the corner of the box and keep the ball away from the goal.” Not a rousing coaching strategy but then it was YMCA. Combine my less-than-stellar soccer skills with television actively pushing me towards other sports which I could actually watch: (American) football, basketball, and baseball. Soccer was left in the dust. I grew up seeing it as a sport that kids played and adults elsewhere (not America) played and thus not something I should worry about. I mean, I wasn’t seeing a soccer player peddling a sugary drink.

Grant Hill and Sprite

And so it was all the way through college, despite a friend named David, until I returned to Orlando in 2005. During that time I reconnected with some childhood friends from church, a pair of Brazilian brothers named David and Daniel. They were members of my childhood church. David was two years my senior, and Daniel was four years my junior. I was in middle school for one year with David, and I can remember him playing soccer for my middle school’s soccer team. I don’t know I ever watched a game, but I remember him in the uniform and the team photo. I knew both of them much more from church youth group and choir.

It was with these brothers that I watched the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I contend that there is no greater event than gathering with a Brazilian family to watch World Cup soccer. It was a feast of food for every game and they were infinitely patient as they explained the rules of the game which I didn’t understand. I will always be thankful for that first spark that relit my love of soccer.

As a brief aside: I think I returned the favor. My contribution was to take them to Sci-Fi City in Orlando where they bought their first RPG dice sets, before we went on to play many wonderful games of D&D with them and some other friends. The older of the two brothers, David, passed away a few years ago and while the group continued to play D&D without him it wasn’t the same.

After the 2006 World Cup passed, my interest in soccer waned once again as the world around me turned away from soccer and back to those other popular American sports.

In 2009, tied to the fateful events which turned me down my current career path, I joined CoolStuffInc.com where my two bosses were both big soccer fans. When the 2010 World Cup rolled around we took our laptops down to the game store before it opened and watched the games on the television while we worked. And it was there my love of soccer was truly reignited. Again, I was swept up in the World Cup, and again I was educated by those who knew far more about the sport.

Again though, the World Cup left us, but this time the interest in the sport was buoyed. I began seeking it out by following some oversea teams. Though I was only casually interested, this time the barrier to entry was lower.

Television was changing. America was changing. The Internet was changing. And I had two new allies: one of my bosses and my fiancee. Katie, as it turns out, was a soccer fan as well so she was all too eager to share this love with me. As I grew to know more about soccer, as I began to find teams I liked, and as the world around me made soccer more accessible here in the states I began to find more and more to love for it.

Perhaps the most critical event of this timeline was just before Katie and I left Orlando. It was then that Orlando launched their NASL team (and now soon to be an MLS team featuring a famous player named Kaka) the Orlando City Soccer Club. Our first experience with them was at a friendly against Newcastle United. Katie and I were able to enjoy the excitement together and we were planning to buy season tickets for the next season were it not for the fateful opportunity that brought us to Seattle.

For those of you who don’t know, Seattle is home to the Seattle Sounders, an MLS club since 2010 (NASL team since 1974). And we are the only city in America to consistently draw European-level crowds for their soccer matches (2013 averaged 44,000 fans per home game.) Katie and I, as I said, had discovered the joy of watching and attending a soccer match while in Orlando and so we knew we had to check out the Sounders. We attended, I believe, two or maybe three games and watched others on television before we decided to order season tickets for the 2013-2014 season.

Sounders stadium

As much as the Sounders matches with Katie deserve credit for feeding the flame, the Internet and the changing landscape of American television deserve a great deal of credit too. The Internet has become an American soccer fan’s lifeline providing clips and full replays of games from leagues around the world, available with just a few clicks of a mouse. Watching them stream live or as recorded matches ripped from broadcasts. It is a common practice for me to acquire a match or two before a trip so I can watch them during a flight, I’ve found I prefer those matches to any other in-flight entertainment.

Additionally, the landscape of American television proper is changing. It is my belief that soccer in America was actively stymied by the proliferation of television and the rise of commercials. Soccer is not an easy sport to profit off of as a broadcast network. Where football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, and any other sport has countless natural breaks where commercials can be run – soccer does not. And so for that reason networks, in search of profits during some previous decade, shunned soccer. Maybe this is unfair, or perhaps there is more at work than I am aware, but the logic makes perfect sense so I choose to believe it.

Now though, the world has changed. America is going through a soccer renaissance as MLS is on a growth spurt, and American networks are competing to broadcast more and more soccer. Those, combined with online access to games, and infinite clips on YouTube, makes soccer a very accessible sport for those getting into it.

So then why? Up to now I’ve walked you through my personal journey of how I fell in love with soccer, but I haven’t done anything to capture the why. Before I do so, let me first step into a discussion about what I think a few of the reasons are for why soccer has struggled in the United States.

I think part of the reason that soccer struggles is because our modern media machine has not been built to allow soccer to succeed. Television broadcasting relies on advertising deals for commercials and product ads, where NFL, NBA, MLB and other televised sports have many opportunities for commercial breaks (some initiated specifically for that purpose rather than used opportunistically)—soccer doesn’t allow for that. The game is two forty-five minute halves without stops. No chance for commercials, and thus not exactly the poster boy for profitability.

There is one thing which could force the broadcasters to eat this: public demand. And what brings public demand? National team success or the rise of a popular league. Neither of which has truly happened yet.

These issues are a chicken and an egg problem in today’s world. It is imperative for any professional sport that it not only get exposure but also the revenue from the coverage. With that coverage comes not only revenue but also the growth of a culture around the sport: kids watching and loving the sport’s stars. Lastly, this coverage is critical for also the reason of comparison against other sports. As a kid, why should I care about a sport I can’t watch on TV when instead I can follow Jordan and the Bulls, or Deion Sanders and the Falcons or Cowboys, or… someone relevant from baseball (Greg Maddux) or hockey (Wayne Gretzky.)

So, aside from the popularity, with the rise of attention that Americans give it around every World Cup there is still a problem of “stickiness.” It doesn’t grab Americans who aren’t indoctrinated in it. I contend one of the major reasons is the need for people to learn the sport beyond the base rules. Many people think soccer is slow, boring, or hard to follow.

The advantage other sports have that is that they are more “busy” than soccer. American Football is a multi-hour broadcast for less than an hour of active game play. Basketball’s last two minutes of action can take twenty-plus minutes. Baseball is a series of pitches which result sometimes in bursts of action. These sports are short easily processed chunks which create punctuations of action that make us believe that, on the whole, they are faster and more action packed than soccer. The difference is that there are nice and easy digestible bites of these sports. Whether the plays of football, or the shot-clock limited fast-paced action of basketball, these are benefits of short attention span because it lets you know for sure when a play or series of actions is complete.

Soccer is more like a marathon. The clock starts and runs without stop for forty-five minutes. You can’t stop and go to the bathroom without risking missing action unless a player is injured. And during this time, there’s no promise of a score, much to many American fans’ frustration. Games end 0-0 or maybe 1-0! Where’s the blow out? Where’s the double digit win?

Soccer’s continuously long period of motion creates a barrier to entry.

Next comes the lack of clear direction of attention. I sort of spoke to this above, but the trap of soccer is that following the ball is only part of what you should be watching. Soccer’s real beauty lies in the whole picture and not just what happens immediately around the ball. I’ll use the Seattle Sounders’ as an example, right now the Sounders have Nigerian Obafemi Martins and American Clint Dempsey as their star scorers with Clint leading the way. However to give either of them sole credit for their success thus far this season is a discredit to the other, and in fact the team as a whole.

Here’s a goal from the Sounders 2013 season, it’s Obafemi Martins who scores, but watch the passing that leads up to the goal:

So in that play you see a pass from Brad Evans (I can’t see clearly, but I think that’s who it is) to Obafemi, who immediately dishes it out to Andy Rose who is streaking up the side. It’s actually this run which is so crucial, without the run the three defenders around Obafemi would be focused solely on him, and thanks to the run they aren’t, which allows Obafemi to make the turn and get into position for Andy’s return pass before the score.

Now here’s another clip for you to watch:

What you see is Obafemi Martins streaking down the right side of the pitch, and doing so draws the Chivas defenders attention (as it should) we then see a pass to Mauro Rosales (now playing for Chivas funnily enough) who slips as he passes it on to Lamar Neagle who is left wide open because the defense has closed in on Obafemi and Mauro. Again, while the goal is exciting, it’s the movement leading up to the goal which is important.

Now for something a bit different, a defensive play that shows you the beauty of defense. A lightning quick foot move to stop an attack and then a tenacious defense.

Another shot from the World Cup which shows an amazing pass. It’s unlikely Guti, the player who makes the backwards pass, actually knew for sure a team mate was there but it shows the amazing team work where he felt confident a team mate would be in the area.

These aren’t plays which will convert non-soccer fans, but they are examples of the need to be watching more than just the ball.

So, now that I’ve just shown you the importance of not watching the ball – I’m not going to lie. Goals are amazing exclamation points, better than touchdowns, home runs, or three point shots. I mean sure, some are better than goals, but the best goals will defeat the best touchdowns in my opinion.

Alright, let me show you some amazing goals:

I could keep going. The fact that I can make those above embeds with only a few minutes of work is exactly what is going right for soccer now. Technology is opening up the world of soccer in new and Internet-friendly ways. The World Cup aside, it’s an exciting period.

MLS is growing quickly, they’ve announced their next four expansion teams in the next three years: Orlando (as mentioned above), NYC FC (a partnership between Manchester City and the New York Yankees), Miami (courtesy of David Beckham and LeBron James), and Atlanta (with the likes of Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons). No other sports league in America is expanding like the MLS is right now.

In addition to these new teams, they announced a new landmark television deal with ESPN and FOX. This deal is exciting because the amount of money they’re talking about is actually more than NBC is paying for the English Premier League.

That’s exciting because it means that MLS is really starting to be taken serious by US broadcasters, and it also means that EPL is being broadcast in the US, and there is even more exciting news in that there is a deal for FOX to carry Bundesliga starting in 2015. My soccer excitement isn’t only because of the World Cup (though that is obviously part of it) but also because the years ahead are very exciting for fans of the sport.

Some may think I’ve strayed away from why and back to how, and that is understandable, except I haven’t. I’m still on why. I’m in love with the sport now because I have readily available access to it. Something which when I was in college wasn’t true.

There is another major factor which I shouldn’t overlook, though it is far from a conclusive one. Having a hometown team to cheer for is fantastic. Seattle’s love for the Sounders certainly plays part in why I love soccer. I love going to the matches and experiencing the atmosphere of it all. More so than going to a live basketball, baseball or football game, the soccer match experience is fantastic in Seattle.

As I write this latest revision to the blog post the United States Men’s team are on the verge of proceeding to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The only time we have proceeded further was in 1930, when we placed third out of the eight teams that participated in the first ever World Cup. Interestingly, the first match we played during that tournament was a 3-0 win over Belgium.

Will we be able to overcome one of our most ancient of professional soccer foes? I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow. But regardless of how it ends up, I know I’m going to love to continue to watch the rest of the tournament (though I’ll love it more if I’m rooting for the good ole’ red, white, and blue.)

#IBELIEVEWEWILLWIN

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