Point of View

US wowed by World Cup, but soccer will never stick

July 17, 2014 

The demise of the United States against Belgium in the World Cup “Knockout Round” brought to an end the seventh quadrennial renaissance of soccer in the United States. The first trumpeted ascension of soccer occurred in 1994, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup and also advanced to the round of 16 before losing 1-0 to Brazil.

World Cups where the U.S. has been at least competitive have been accompanied by predictions that soccer has finally “arrived” in the United States. The euphoria of rooting for our country in a wonderfully compelling international competition has lent credibility to such predictions.

High television ratings are testament that the 2014 World Cup held this nation in its thrall. There was keen interest in the matches even when the U.S. was not involved, particularly in pubs where Spanish and other European languages can be heard and Scottish accents can be understood.

But now that the World Cup has been played to its conclusion, soccer will plummet to its residual place in the American sports landscape, much as other sports that are prominent in Olympic years take their place on the periphery of the national consciousness. These sports have a small but enthusiastic cadre of followers, but when was the last time the mainstream sports fan in America got excited about any gymnastics, swimming or figure skating competition outside the Olympic Games?


To be fair, Major League Soccer does have its pockets of fanaticism, mostly in the Northwest, where it attracts young, urban hipsters in Portland and Seattle. Soccer in these locales has become a communal experience, often accompanied by the product of a local microbrewery or a decriminalized patch of soil.

While professional soccer grips the land of mist, the suburban soccer explosion has yet to materialize in most of the country, despite the fact that participation in youth soccer is the law in many communities. Having Taylor run around and kick the ball does not seem to translate to entrenched fandom for either Taylor or his/her parents.

Then there is the nature of the game itself, which does not seem to fit into the American spectator sport ethos. Football has replaced baseball as the most popular sport here because Americans like explosive and violent action. Baseball has a slow pace and requires a cerebral commitment to be truly appreciated; hence, its decline relative to football.

Soccer “rewards” its fans with a couple of goals every 90 minutes (except for Germany’s destruction of Brazil), which is anathema to the desire of Americans for actual scoring. Defenders will cite the artistry of the “beautiful game,” but it is hard to embrace a World Cup Semi-Final – The Netherlands v. Argentina – where 120 minutes of playing time produced 0-0 tie followed by penalty kicks.


There is a larger reason, beyond the lack of scoring, why Americans will never fully embrace soccer. We like our sports to embody order and control and a lack of randomness. Professional football is as corporate and rigid as a sport can be, right down to every detail of its live and televised presentation. Instant replay corrects egregious and often minute errors made by game officials.

There is often a capricious quality to the outcome of a soccer game, with the team in control not necessarily winning (see the heart-stopping and deflating U.S. tie with Portugal, which was turnabout for Ghana outplaying the U.S. in game won by the Americans).

Subjectivity also seems to prevail in the way a soccer referee manages a game, including the adding of “stoppage time” at the end of each half. Stoppage time is supposed to make up for playing time that is lost during injuries and the feigning of injuries but appears to be added in a fairly arbitrary manner, which is why I refer to it as “sloppage time.”

Soccer is like a piece of chaotic abstract art, which is difficult to appreciate when one is accustomed to the controlled canvas of American football.

Europeans are raised in a culture of soccer, and they “get it” in a way most Americans never will. They like drinking in the morning more than we do, and we like seeing numbers go up on a scoreboard more than they do.

As much as we might succumb to the allure and patriotic fervor of the World Cup, soccer-mania in the United States will remain a once-every-four-year phenomenon.

Joseph Pearlman is an attorney in Charlotte.

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