Assimilating Soccer


With the U.S. soccer team's graceful, if somewhat controversial, exit last week from the World Cup, American interest in the massively popular quadrennial tournament is understandably ebbing. It probably doesn't help to pique curiosity that Saturday's final is between Brazil and Germany, perennial soccer powerhouses with seven World Cup titles between them. While it's true that the two teams have never met in the Cup's 72-year history, such a pairing is like watching the goddamned Yankees square off against the fershlugginer Braves in the World Series. C'mon already: A Turkey-South Korea World Cup final–just like an Angels-Astros World Series–is a far more fascinating prospect for all sorts of reasons.

While the fact that the U.S. won't play in the final game is disappointing to fans, the end of the team's run has one unequivocal benefit to soccer enthusiasts: It means no more stories, at least until 2006, about the supposed larger social significance of the game. Sports competitions lend themselves all too easily to such musings, sometimes understandably and persuasively (think Jesse Owens vs. Nazi Germany). More often, though, such meditations drift into a strange form of free association cum ideological axe-grinding (think Peggy Noonan's autistic thoughts on the Mets vs. Yankees).

The latter, alas, is more often the case with World Cup commentary. For at least the past decade, every World Cup has occasioned outpourings about how soccer (yes, yes, I know it's called football everywhere outside the U.S.) will never be popular in the U.S. because it is as un-American as Swiss cheese or, alternately, how its unpopularity here is a sign of some moral failure. Hence, The Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last takes some free kicks at "soccer scolds" who just can't accept America's "indifference" to the game while blogger Andrew Sullivan throws a red card (in an English newspaper) at "America's Soccer Isolationism," a metaphor for ongoing U.S. "exceptionalism" that marks "a real and worrisome" gulf "between America and the world." Smartly attacking the "bizarre phenomenon of anti-soccer conservatism" in The American Prospect, Sasha Polakow-Suransky laments that "the beautiful game" has "yet to fully catch on" here.

What such pieces studiously ignore is the simple fact that soccer is already well-established in the U.S. (and, on the women's side, in the world). Indeed, for those who can remember back more than a couple of decades, the current state of soccer is nothing less than astonishing. At its peak, the old North American Soccer League–which introduced the U.S. to such international sports figures as Pele, Eusebio, and Georgie Best–was capable of packing the Meadowlands with then-record crowds of 70,000. Today's analogue, Major League Soccer, doesn't put nearly as many asses in the seats, but has healthy attendance nonetheless, with a league average of over 15,000 per game.

More to the point: According to the relevant stats, soccer is one of the most popular participant sports in the U.S. In 1999, for instance, over 13 million Americans played soccer, which compares well with the 10 million who skied, the 11 million who played touch football, the 10 million who played tennis, and the 17 million who hunted with guns. Soccer ranks as the fifth-most popular high school sport for boys, with over 9,000 boys teams and some 330,000 players (only football, basketball, outdoor track and field, and baseball are more popular). About 270,000 high school girls play on over 8,000 teams (for girls, basketball, outdoor track and field, volleyball, and softball rank above soccer).

It's true that American kids don't play sandlot soccer and dream of becoming the starting striker for the MLS's stupidly named Colorado Rapids or Dallas Burn. But they don't really play sandlot baseball and dream of becoming the starting centerfielder for the Florida Marlins or Kansas City Royals much anymore, either. Who even pretends anymore that any sport embodies "America"–or any other nation's character? Sure, most Americans have no idea why the hell Ronaldo has an official Web site. But that doesn't mean soccer has yet to arrive in America.