Stop me if you’ve heard this before – soccer is going to become popular in the United States. I know, right? First it was Pele. Then it was the Youth Soccer movement of the 1980s. Then it was the 1994 World Cup. Then it was Landon Donovan’s “Go-Go-USA” goal in the 2010 World Cup. Every so often, it is declared that soccer is about to explode in popularity in America.
That of course, is missing the point. American soccer will never be on the same level of the NFL, NBA or MLB – it’s just too big of a hill to climb. There’s also this minor, yet crucial point, which is that the best soccer isn’t being played in America or by Americans – and it never will be.
I guess my title was a tad misleading. It’s not soccer that is poised to take over America – it’s European soccer.
I’m writing this just a few hours removed from one of the most exciting sporting events I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness as Manchester City ripped victory from the jaws of defeat with 2 goals in stoppage time against Queens Park Rangers, a lowly team fighting just to avoid relegation. It’s hard to put the magnitude of what happened into words of an exasperated Ian Darke, calling the game on ESPN2.
“Who is writing this stuff?!?”
In an unprecedented move, Fox Sports & ESPN teamed up to show each of the last 10 English Premier League games live across a variety of channels (FX, FSN, ESPN2, Fox Soccer, Speed, Fuel, etc.) and produce a Mother’s Day morning unlike any other in recent memory. Couple the coverage with the thrilling finale and we may look back at May 13, 2012, as the day soccer finally began its march to the American mainstream.
It doesn’t take long for a newcomer to European soccer to understand how it works. Everyone plays each other twice, home and away. You get 3 points for a win. You get 1 point for a tie. The team with the most points at the end of the year is the champion. Simple, easy and brilliant. College football is grappling to keep the regular season meaningful while instituting a playoff – hint you can’t – while Major League Soccer tries to get people to pay attention when more than half the teams make the playoffs.
The beauty of the soccer table is how accessible it is. You know where you stand. Everyone plays the exact same schedule. There’s no home-field advantage. There’s no seeding. There’s no luck involved. The best team is rewarded. Likewise, the worst teams are not…
If there is anything more devastating than a team being relegated from the top flight, I haven’t found it yet. It’s been written a thousand times across the Internet so I won’t rehash the details but just imagine if relegation existed in American sports? QPR played like their lives were on the line today against Manchester City. You know why? Because their lives were on the line today.
In American sports, we get what the Sports Guy Bill Simmons has dubbed “tankapalooza” where the worst teams in a given league actively tank in order to get the best player in the next draft. Yes, only in America, can a franchise actually be rewarded for being absolutely terrible. The Charlotte Bobcats were the worst team in the history of pro basketball this year – for this, they are likely to receive a possibly once-in-a-lifetime center in Anthony Davis. Somehow, this doesn’t seem right.
3. Parity Does Not Exist
Is there a worst scourge on American sports than the idea of parity? The NFL has actively sought parity for 20 years and we are left with a league void of great teams, in which 9-7 Wild Cards routinely get hot and win the championship. Thankfully, the NFL thrives due to gambling and fantasy football, so they need parity to drive those two. Think about that the next time two .500 teams are playing a dreadful 17-14 game in Week 14 – why are you watching? I bet gambling and fantasy football are the answer.
But is parity a good thing? Of course it’s not. College football has risen up to become our nation’s 2nd most popular sport precisely because there is no parity. Where the best teams in other sports can change from year to year, college football provides year after year with the same “behemoth” programs like Alabama, Ohio State and USC dominating their conferences. Look at the NBA – is there any wonder ratings skyrocketed last year thanks to the emergence of the Miami Heat as a Goliath?
European soccer has this down to a science. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal – everyone knows these teams. If you root for Fulham, Newcastle or Everton – that is where you want to be. Who is the best team in Major League Soccer? Who’s the flagship team in the NHL?
4. A Superior Television Product
My father got on the soccer bandwagon years before I did. Why? He needed something to watch on Sunday mornings before the NFL other than the endless talking head shows. He found Fox Soccer and he’s been hooked ever since. And how can you not be? For 2 hours, you get sports. No commercials. No beer commercials over and over again. No sideline reporters interviewing the star of NBC’s latest failed sitcom. No fluff pieces during the action about where Tom Brady gets his hair done.
It’s sports. The action doesn’t stop. Sure, there are ads all over the pitch and on the screen but that’s okay – the game is still going on. In today’s “two second attention span” era, it’s nice to simply watch a sporting event for 45 minutes straight without having to change the channel to avoid that awful Bud Light commercial where they torture Wego, the poor rescue dog. Yes, I fully understand I’m a 29 year old writing like a 59 year old but dammit, sometimes it’s really nice to just sit back, relax and not deal with too many commercials. Of course, it’s more than relaxing….
So often, the epicness of our sporting events is forced. ESPN tries every day to build up what they are showing that night in an effort to put it on par with the great events of the past. It very rarely works. But, Lord, they try. It just usually doesn’t hit the mark.
Soccer, on the other hand, is epic by definition. Every goal could mean victory for one side or defeat for the other. Take a quick look at the Manchester City game as an example. For 40 minutes, Man City pushed and attacked and pushed for that first goal and couldn’t pull it off. Even on their first goal, the crowd groans as one as the goalie gets his fingertips then joins in delirium as it falls behind him into the net.
Fast forward through QPR’s two goals – it was as if every single Manchester City fan had been punched in the gut. As Man City fought valiantly toward the end, the crowd moved to the edge of their seat and viciously implored their side. When they scored to tie it up, you felt the energy and nervousness seep through the air as they willed for another goal. When it happened, the 44-year title drought was finally over and the celebration was unlike any I’ve seen in an American sporting event, with the exception of some college football games. Pure pandemonium. Tears of joy. Grown men ripping their shirts off. Children hugging their parents. It was the personification of why sports are universal and why the thrill of victory can be one of the most uplifting human emotions.
It’s been just about five hours since Manchester City & QPR gave the sports world its game of the year. Sadly, I already miss soccer. Watching the Clippers and Grizzlies play to advance to the 2nd round of a 16-team tournament suddenly seems so unimportant.
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