Soccer truly is a “beautiful game,” the only sport capable of captivating fans from all corners of the world. Every four years when the World Cup is held, millions of people from different cultures and of various heritages unite with a single hope: to watch their fellow countrymen win the coveted World Cup trophy and forever be remembered as champions.
As a soccer enthusiast myself, there is no greater joy than observing the national pride displayed by the various teams and competitors at the World Cup. The raw emotion of an elated goal celebration and the tears shed after an elimination game convey the deep, underlying love for the game and the pride of representing an impassioned country. Men, women and children from every participating nation share in the intensity of their team’s tournament successes and disappointments as the hopes and dreams of an entire culture rest of the shoulders of the eleven men representing them on the pitch.
This summer, I was excited by the prospect of watching the United States Men’s National Team led by new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Despite my eagerness to watch the Americans take on the world’s best, I never thought that the U.S. could escape the Group Stage, having been drawn against Germany, Portugal and Ghana. To my pleasant surprise, the USMNT played with fervor and tenacity, advancing from the Group Stage and to the Round of 16.
After this early success, I became a true believer. I not only wanted the team to succeed, but after their strong performance against Germany, I legitimately thought that they could contend with any team in the tournament. I desperately wanted them to beat Belgium in the Round of 16, as I could see American soccer becoming increasingly popular among sports fans who had previously refused to take the sport seriously. People were finally rallying around the sport that I had played and appreciated my whole life, and if the United States could find a way to defeat the Belgians, I could envision the sport breaking through and rivaling the domestic popularity of basketball and football. I envisioned a sports culture in which soccer players weren’t mocked for dramatic embellishment on the pitch or called “foot fairies.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. didn’t beat the Belgians. After the team was eliminated from the tournament, Americans were proud of the team’s efforts in Brazil. Though the excitement and appreciation for the United States Men’s National Team reached an all-time peak at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the buzz about American soccer has failed to translate into increased popularity in Major League Soccer, America’s professional soccer league. The domestic television ratings and viewership of MLS games have continued to pale in comparison to those of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League.
One potential explanation for this could be the fact that clubs from the MLS can’t match the quality of player or money invested in the clubs from the top European soccer leagues. Another factor that contributes to the MLS’ subordination to European soccer leagues such as the Barclay’s Premier League (Britain), La Liga (Spain) or Bundesliga (Germany) is the MLS’s lack of star power.
American sports enthusiasts are enamored with icons. Even Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, two of the greatest American soccer players of all-time, will never receive the same respect and attention as international superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But why has the United States- a country that continues to dominate events like the Summer and Winter Olympic Games- not yet produced an athlete capable of rivaling the likes of Messi or Ronaldo?
The answer is that, indeed, we have produced many such athletes- these competitors have just chosen to play football, basketball or baseball instead of soccer.
Imagine Lebron James rising up for a 50-50 challenge in the midfield wearing a Real Madrid shirt.
Visualize Mike Trout streaking down the sidelines to pursue a through ball with all of the fans in Old Trafford chanting his name.
Envision Calvin Johnson and his 6’10” wingspan being called upon to save penalty kicks for the Red, White, and Blue.
My point is, there are many American-born marvels with unparalleled athletic prowess and abilities, but until these athletes choose to pursue careers in professional soccer rather than other popular domestic sports, soccer will continue to be under appreciated in our country. Soccer is more popular in America than ever before, but it still has a long way to go to catch up with the more established and prominent American pastimes.
I hope America will one day be as proud of soccer as the players who represent the United States Men’s National Team are of their country. I hope that in four summers, the team will once again have the opportunity to prove their critics wrong and that soccer culture will continue to break through in America.
Photo: James Harper