Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Post-World Cup, Whither Soccer In America?

Now that the World Cup is over (and congratulations to Spain on their first ever championship), I’m faced with a dilemma as an American who’s come to enjoy soccer – what next? I’d like to continue following the sport somewhat regularly, but there’s no natural outlet for my budding interest. I know some American fans have taken to following a team in the English Premier League, La Liga, Seria A, or the other high-level European leagues, but for me at least, investing time and energy in a professional sports team requires an emotional bond of some sort, and it’s hard for me to really get interested in any club that’s not part of a community to which I belong. The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers were all apart of my childhood and adolescence, and no matter where in the world I go, my fondness for them helps me to retain a connection to my hometown and to my core identity as a Philadelphian. I feel no such bond to the communities of Manchester or Rome or Barcelona (heck, I’ve never even been to the first two), and as such deciding to root for their soccer teams feels silly and arbitrary to me. Philadelphia has just this year finally gotten a professional soccer team of their own – the Union – but as Major League Soccer is a decidedly inferior quality league deciding to follow them feels to me like deciding to follow the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs or the Sioux Falls Skyforce - i.e., not worth the trouble. Plus they’re an expansion team which hasn’t even played its first full season yet, and I’m not living in Philadelphia at the moment.

As a result, I find that despite my newfound appreciation for soccer, my interest is capable of deepening only so far at the moment. I’ve become a fan on the intellectual and aesthetic levels, appreciating the strategies of the game and the beauty of a great passing game like Spain’s or the individual brilliance of a transcendent talent like Lionel Messi, but on the deepest and most important level, that of emotional identification, I remain barren. I wonder if I’m not alone, and this phenomenon on a widespread scale this isn’t one of the issues facing the sport at this moment in its growth in the United States. Americans have proven that they will watch a high quality competition like the World Cup, even if the U.S. isn’t playing, and Landon Donovan’s dramatic stoppage time goal against Algeria provided the kind of memorable moment that’s capable of galvanizing genuine interest in any sport (as well as a permanent and irrefutable piece of counterevidence to the oft-leveled “soccer is boring” critique). But aside from the U.S. national team, we have no high quality, high stakes rooting interests for whom to cheer.

Contrary to those who argue otherwise, I think there is room in the American sports calendar for soccer – baseball is the only sport actively contested during the summer here, and it’s a slow, languid game that doesn’t demand full attention from its fans, so a league that runs its season from spring through late summer like MLS could in my opinion establish itself as a fifth major team sport in this country. Assuming my theory is correct, the quality of the product needs to be improved to do so, however, and that’s going to require a few more superstar arrivals on the American professional soccer scene like that of David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy a few years back. Bringing in big name, big game players, even if they’re on downside of their careers, will give the league the cache it needs to generate more widespread fan interest, but getting them will require that MLS spend a bit more money, and a leap of faith on the part of the people who run it that their league is ready to take that financial step. To this point, they’ve been prudent in the way they’ve brought the fledgling league along, not over-expanding and taking care to make sure that the league’s underlying financial model remains sustainable. The result has been slow, steady growth, albeit with a few hiccups, and at this point it seems unlikely that the league will fail anytime soon. The question is, when will they decide that it’s time to take the risks necessary to see if it can really succeed rather than just survive and grow?

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