American soccer was like a drug-addicted guy who lived on a ratty boat in a shabby marina. For decades, it seemed as if American soccer would never get its life together. But at some point, without you realizing it, American soccer detoxed, bought a house around the corner, discovered personal grooming, got married, and was recently elected to the town council. American soccer got respectable.
Some claim that colonists at Jamestown, 400 years ago, played a version of soccer. Algonkin and Powhatan Indians played Pasuckuakohowog, a ball-kicking game with hundreds of participants. With the rise of the middle class during the age of industrialization, soccer leagues sprung up, mostly in the northeast, with teams from Massachusetts and New Jersey doing well. In the 1920s, many Major League Baseball team owners also owned professional soccer teams. The Stoneham family, owners of the New York Giants baseball team (which later morphed into our San Francisco Giants), also owned the New York Nationals soccer team. But its league crumbled during the Depression.
In first-round play at the World Cup in Brazil in 1950, a U.S. team of amateurs shocked England 1-0. There was only one U.S. journalist on hand, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and it was the only account of the game to appear in a U.S. newspaper. The United States didn’t win another game at that World Cup.
In the 1970s, Pelé and Beckenbauer, Georgie Best, and Giorgio Chinaglia brought glitz and flair to the North American Soccer League. Youth soccer flourished. But in the time before widespread cable television, the NASL couldn’t generate high enough ratings to make the advertising dollars rain hard enough, and anyway, the NASL expanded too quickly. In 1985 the NASL died, and though kids were still kicking soccer balls in all 50 states, professional soccer relapsed, stumbling back to its duct-taped-together boat in the marina.
Twenty-nine years later, American soccer is respectable. World Cup matches grace the airwaves of the ABC television network. Its sister network, ESPN, is analyzing it. NBC shows English Premiere League games. The Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club are owned by the same company; the New York Yankees have a business alliance with Manchester City. Major League Soccer, though not in the same class as the best world leagues, is a high-quality minor league and has 19 fairly stable franchises, including one in Seattle that pulls in an average of 44,000 fans.
How did American soccer get its act together? Here are (arguably) the five main reasons:
- The 1994 World Cup
- Cable/satellite TV
- The Internet
- Women’s soccer
- Foreigners bringing soccer passion with them
1) Awarding the United States the 1994 World Cup tournament was a forward-thinking strategy by FIFA. At the time, the United States had no significant league. Soccer was on few Americans’ spectator sports radar. One condition of awarding the United States the tournament was that the United States create a league: Major League Soccer was launched two years later.
2) With hundreds of channels, a TV show doesn’t have to attract much of an audience compared to pre-cable days. Mexican soccer, English soccer, German soccer, Italian soccer all are shown and do well enough to justify their existence on American TVs.
3) The Internet provides an endless universe of soccer news.
4) It can be argued that women’s soccer, at its highest level — during the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics — is a more interesting game to watch than men’s soccer. There is more open space on the field in the women’s game, so it lends itself to an incredible amount of precision passing: teamwork. The role of each of the players is easier to identify, and the players seem less interchangeable than in the men’s game. It’s easy to appreciate a woman’s national team that does well. And unlike the men, the U.S. women often win. Since 1991, when the Women’s World Cup started, the U.S. team has finished in the top three every time.
5) There’s nothing like going out for breakfast and walking past a bar crammed with English men and women drunkenly screaming in ecstasy for a goal in a Champions League game. Mexicans watch Mexico. Italians watch Italy. Germans watch Germany. And everybody is aware of what’s going on in the other leagues. The passion rubs off on the rest of us.
Now can we the chest-beating USA! USA! live without having the best league in the world, without getting close to winning the World Cup? Yes, and we are. Though its house is dwarfed by the MLB, NFL, and NBA megamansions, and the NHL four-bedroom Tudor, American soccer in its tidy little house is doing just fine, thank you. Much of the credit goes to Mrs. American soccer. But for Mr. American soccer, there is no longer any serious possibility of a relapse. And a few years ago, the boat was sold for a dollar.