East Coast Bias: Welcome to the World Cup

It’s that time of the year. That time that only comes every four years when Americans pretend to care about soccer (or football) for a few weeks. That time when it’s normal to see bars packed at 9 am with people sucking down Guinness and getting rowdy. Yesterday, I had to bring my cousin to Grand Central Station at 7:30 am so she could catch a plane back west. Since I had gotten up at six, I knew the day was going to be pretty much a wash of sleep, so I decided to get a coffee and walk back home (about 4.5 miles). At the very least, I’d get some fresh air, as 8:30 on a Saturday is a bit before all the traffic and tourism starts.

As I walked down Madison Ave, I couldn’t quite figure out why bars were already getting crowded so early in the morning. It took until the beginning of England’s match at 9:00 for me to finally realize what was going on. It also meant it was the time, every four years, when the sports media (and everyone else, including 60 Minutes) either poses the question “is this the year soccer catches on in the US?” or definitively declares, “This is the year soccer catches on in the US.”

This leads me to my latest column: Why The WNBA Is More Likely To Catch On Than Soccer.

Why The WNBA Is More Likely To Catch On Than Soccer

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t hate the sport of soccer. I used to play it, I have tremendous respect for the athletes who play the game, and I appreciate the number of people worldwide who watch (live and die) the game.

But for the people who expect soccer to catch on the United States… just stop.

We’ve been down this road before, every four years since 1994. In 1994, the stars were aligned for soccer to catch on here in the United States. We were hosting the event. We had a cast of characters with personalities, including Alexei Lalas and his unruly goatee. We had a team that didn’t suck. And what happened? The US got bounced by Brazil in the first round. After that? Soccer went the way of the Yeti until 1998. Then again until 2002. Then again until 2006.

But why? Why is it a sport that is huge in every other country in the known world barely an afterthought here?

It’s pretty simple really. If the only sport your country really played for 100 years was competitive juggling; you’d be passionate about competitive juggling. You might even find competitive juggling hooligans worldwide who live and die by competitive juggling.

In the United States we have, and had for, in some cases, more than 100 years, four sports. The first Stanley Cup was handed out in 1893. The first World Series was played in 1903. While there’s only been 40 Super Bowls, the NFL was founded in 1920. The NBA was founded a relatively short time ago in 1946. Now, suddenly, we want to add a fifth major sport into the mix? One who shares the most similarities with the one that is nearly going bankrupt? When, pray tell, are you going to play it? Are you going to put it up against the NFL and College Football, known in some circles as suicide? Nope, that won’t work as soccer teams and NFL teams share the same venues. Are you going to play it against baseball, the US’s national past-time? Maybe add it into the mix with basketball and hockey?

People in the United States have had decades, or even centuries, to have these other sports ingrained into their lives. We live in a country where American football is part of major holidays. We live in a country where Opening Day of baseball season is almost a national holiday. Now, you want us to work a new sport into these seasons? How is that even possible?

Answer is: it’s not.

The United States is not suddenly going to “pick up on soccer.” The only way soccer, as a fifth major sport, will ever be successful, is with time. The Arena League has been around for almost 20 years now. Just now, 20 years after the first Arena Football game, are people starting to care about it. The US knows soccer is around. We know what it’s about and, most of all, we know it’s a pretty boring game.

Soccer fans don’t think the game is boring in the same way that baseball fans don’t think baseball is boring. I’m a baseball fan, but even I see where people would think it was boring to watch. In a game where someone scores one goal, and then 11 guys play defense for ninety minutes, it pretty quickly can descend into a bore-fest. In baseball, at least, there’s always a chance a pitcher enters a tailspin and gives up four runs. In soccer, a 4 goal lead is pretty close to insurmountable. In baseball, as Billy Wagner proved a few weeks ago, there’s always a chance.

At the end of the day, soccer just isn’t palatable to the American fan. First and foremost, the clock. You’re telling me, in this day and age, we can’t tie something into the referee’s “official” time so we know how much longer the game is? Why does the referee have to be the only person to know how much time is left in the game? Am I the only person who realizes that a clock ticking down to zero in a game like soccer would increase the drama ten-fold? If your team is down by one goal what’s more dramatic. Seeing the seconds tick off a clock running from 1:33 to 1:32 to 1:31 all the way down to 0? Or watching the clock tick up to 90:00 and then the game ending… at some point after that? There’s never a sense of urgency in a soccer match. There’s never that 2-minute drive at the end of a football game with the team down by 4. There’s never the bases loaded, 2-out, bottom of the ninth scenario. There’s never that last second buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send the game into overtime. Hell, there’s never even an 18th-hole eagle putt. What the US fan sees, the fan conditioned to watch the backward running clock, is a game devoid of drama.

For myself, I’ll be watching the USA world cup match this afternoon on a long lunch. I can enjoy the game simply by rooting for the USA. However, will that translate into me rooting for the Metrostars over the DC United? Probably not. Why? Because I can’t take any professional league serious when they call their New York team NY/NJ. I also have a hard time dealing with a professional league selling a team to a corporation and naming their team after their product. The New York Red Bulls? Does that mean we’re one step closer to the Dallas Pepsis?

As for now, let’s stop pretending the World Cup is some kind of doorway to getting soccer into the mainstream here in the US. Just let the World Cup be what it is: an excellent display of international athleticism.