The American ‘soccerati’–soccer moms, knee-sock-wearing kids eating orange slices, illegal aliens, hipsters, and self-righteous sportscasters–feels pretty good today.
After all, the 2014 World Cup just ended in a vortex of self-congratulatory euphoria: America has finally caught up to the rest of the world in terms of sophistication and athletic priorities. This is very important to some media mavens, such as ESPN’s Mike “Greenie” Greenberg, who has insisted for three weeks with religious fervor that soccer must become bigger in this country. Why that is so crucial, exactly, remains a mystery.
But to soccer’s credit, the 2014 World Cup was a palpably bigger deal in the states than it was in 2010. More people in this country watched, and more goals were scored. Soccer needs both things to happen (and they are related) to succeed in the U.S. After penning a satirical piece about soccer during the 2010 Cup called “The Perfect Socialist Sport,” I was surprised that I found myself checking in so often this time around. It was compelling, at times, and at other times, it was, well, nil-nil.
So, just how much bigger was the 2014 World Cup than the 2010 Cup? According to television ratings, about 26% bigger. That is a substantial jump to be sure, and yet, to watch the coverage of the event one would assume it had quadrupled. The average game drew about 3 million viewers, and some top games drew 25 million. That last figure has convinced some, including the Los Angeles Times, that soccer is on the verge of passing the NBA and MLB in popularity. And this is one of the main rubs with the soccerati–their insistence on using invalid comparisons as proof of their sport’s moral and popular superiority.
And by invalid, it’s simply not a proper comparison to judge a sport’s overall popularity on a once-every-four-years event versus pedestrian regular-season games or even once-a-year playoffs. Nor is it valid to judge ratings for a national team versus those who represent just one city. By the same standards, we could expect ice skating, track and field, and even curling to supplant LeBron James any day now. This does not happen, and no one expects it to. Ever.
The ultimate test will be in the popularity of MLS going forward. I suspect that after a short bump, MLS will come back down to earth and only enjoy a small long-term increase. And that may be as much related to the southern border and massive importation of soccer fans as anything else. Soccer has some fundamental aspects that just are not quintessentially American. And that will not change. What has changed, is changing, and will probably continue to change is that America itself is not quintessentially American in many ways. This is spurring soccer’s popularity as much as any other factor.
The un-American part is the paucity of scoring–less than 2.7 total goals per game for the Cup, but less than 2 goals per game in the competitive rounds. If you take away Germany’s 7-goal explosion in that single 7-1 game against Brazil, the average knockout-round game averaged 1.5 goals. The players are skilled, and the goals are huge but the problem is the ‘socialistic’ offside rule and what it does to the risk-reward equation of the game, not to mention competitive instincts. This rule–which is not as similar to hockey’s offside rule as some assume–is the equivalent of outlawing the bomb in football or the outlet pass in fast-break basketball. It penalizes risk while rewarding getting beat deep, as a player cannot beat a defender downfield unless he already has the ball. Thus, a defender can escape a risky situation by simply weakening his position and waiting for the whistle. It is not just un-American, it is counter to the very essence of competition. Be beaten so you can win!
Now, this may not be a popularity problem when you have national teams and the naturally occurring accompanying tensions, stunning venues in Rio, around-the-clock fawning coverage, and four years to get over it after it’s done. But that is not the reality American soccer will settle back into. And the lack of scoring, and the inherent frustration of what this rule does to scoring chances, will doom soccer to a degree in this country. Many Americans don’t know what it is about soccer that bugs them. This is it.
Of course, the soccerati will insist that this rule is sacrosanct to the “flow of the beautiful game”–and to a degree, they’re correct. However, the disallowed Argentine goal demonstrates the inanity of the rule as it is enforced. It could be and should be tweaked. But it will not be touched.