I’ve not watch a NFL game for about four years. I used to love it but now I can’t stomach to sit through a play or two. The exorbitant contracts don’t bother me. Although the blind eye to domestic (or just regular) violence off the field do bother me, that’s not it either. It’s the fact that the people inside the sport no longer want to play the game. They want to play the system. Rather than going for the ball, they go for the call. Games are more about referees than players. The game has become a sad shell of what it was. I’ve got the same complaint about my preferred sport of soccer but it has not reach the point of boycott YET! There are millions of dollars (or whatever currency) on the line, I get it. The problem is that the we’re all being robbed, not just the fans.
The reason why sports are such an ingrained part of our world is that they are a metaphor for what it is like to be alive. Whether it’s football, soccer, badminton or any other athletic endeavor; it is a meeting of body, mind and spirit that is a test on what we are capable of. When you look at sport in this light, it is easy to see that every time that someone tries to dupe the referee and succeeds, we lose. The fans, the players, the coaches and sport itself loses because we are no longer testing what we are capable of, we are finding out what we can get away with. I’m not picking on professional athletes because unfortunately it has become a cultural norm. The reason why I point them out specifically is that they are in the spotlight and have the ability to move the culture. They train for most of their lives to become the best of the best on their field but then become snake oil salesmen when it truly counts. And none of us will ever know!
We’ll never know what they could have done. Had they just played through the foul, the contact or the almost contact of their opponent. It puts the result of the day on the line for sure and I know that everyone loves a winner but at what cost? If gaming the system is the most common way to win, then we need to consider very heavily what it is that we’ve lost. More than likely it is the willingness to put it all on our own shoulders. Until we do that, we’ll never know what we were capable of and that is the point.
So I beg of you, as you go out into your own life today, don’t take the dive. Don’t look for the loophole or the shortcut. Even though you’re not a professional athlete, we all have the opportunity to find the greatness within ourselves. The key to that is that you must demand a higher standard of conduct. Because if you don’t give it your all, you’re just never going to know!
In “The Junk Mail” episode of Seinfeld, we are introduced to Frankie Merman. He is Jerry’s childhood friend who has many quirks including digging holes to sit in when he is upset. Despite his eccentricities, George is slightly jealous of Frankie because Frankie and Jerry attended camp together. George ruefully refers to Frankie as the “Summer Me”. He even goes so far as to lie to Jerry about an imaginary summer friend of his own. All of this ridiculousness is par for the course in the world of Seinfeld. As far fetched as it all may be, it got me thinking about the soccer world in which American fans live.
Next weekend marks the end of the Premier League. For those who religiously follow teams from England on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there is hole to be filled. Recognizing this fact, it might just be time to embrace Major League Soccer as your “Summer League”. I can hear the protests now, “MLS sucks!” “There’s no promotion or relegation!” “It’s a retirement league!” I’m well aware of this and all of the other vitriol that comes out whenever someone suggests that our domestic league should be watched by our domestic fans. I understand the thought process. My son and I just took a trip to England to see two matches. The allure of European soccer is not lost on me. The only question is do we want it to be this way? Do we truly want to be thousands of miles away from the best soccer in the world? Americans account for the largest number of ticket buyers at the World Cup, other than the host nation. Which means that we travel to far off lands at great expense to see the best in the world compete. In 2026 when the World Cup is here, will Americans not attend the games because they are here? That would be a ludicrous thought! We want the best games with the best players to be in our backyards. BUT we’re impatient, entitled and shortsighted. Let’s take a look at each.
We’re impatient. Major League Soccer is barely 20 years old. Even the re-branded version of the English first division is older by around 4 years. Comparing MLS to any of the historic first divisions from Europe is at best an apples to oranges comparison. At worst, it ignores all common sense. Teams and leagues are made up by players and their endeavors are supported by fans. European fans have supported their clubs for generations. MLS clubs have not existed for a generation yet. Love for a team or club is not built overnight. It is a slow process and we’re in the thick of both the development of love for clubs and a talent pool. If the desire is that MLS should just buy the best talent in the world, do some research on the Cosmos.
We’re entitled. Other than MLS, the other major sports leagues based in the US are arguably the best in the world. NFL, no competition. MLB, takes whatever talent is produced in other leagues. NBA, second tier talent from the US go to play in the other leagues. NHL, brings in talent from all over the world. Is it really that disheartening to have one league of the top five major sport that is not YET the best? Especially when you consider that with the exception of hockey, the others are “American” sports.
We’re shortsighted. In the 1990’s my knowledge of English soccer was actually pretty limited. At the time, the Italian Serie A was arguably the best league in the world. The ingredients that contribute to the rise or fall of the fortunes of a particular league are multiple. One of the most important parts to a successful league is fan interest. If there are not enough fans, there is not enough money to buy enough talent and the product on the field suffers. The shortsighted thought that, “MLS sucks now. I’ll pay attention when it’s better.” is a recipe for disaster. The league cannot reach a status of world renown without the backing of American soccer fans. If you want the best players in the world, playing in your backyard for your local team, then you need to pay for it now, not then. We never get there if we don’t put down the deposits (both financial and emotional) right now.
So yes! Major League Soccer might be Fragile Frankie Merman. It may have all kinds of eccentricities that may not fit your model of a perfect replacement. BUT if you spend your summer pining for the return of George and don’t pay attention. Frankie will continue to disappoint and your summers will always be George-less.
There are some things that are just NOT done in polite American society! You don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant. You don’t talk politics with your in-laws. You don’t talk about money in mixed company. And if you’re an American soccer fan, you don’t agree with Alexi Lalas! I am about to break that last social norm. Alexi gave a description of the apples to oranges comparison of US Soccer’s failings to the successes of Croatia and Iceland. I totally agree. The component pieces of the soccer landscapes and national culture in each country are so completely disparate that comparison is a fool’s errand that is at best click bate and at worst sophisticated soccer tail chasing. So let’s take the American soccer “watermelon*” and inspect it on its own merit to see where we’re going.
First of all, let’s take the population discussion completely off the table because it is irrelevant on many levels. Only 2 countries in the top 20 by population have won a World Cup (Brazil and Germany). Of that same top 20, nine nations have never qualified for a World Cup. If more people was the answer, China and India would be in the final every four years. The fact that the US is larger than another country does not indicate that it should be more likely to win (or perform well) at the World Cup. So it is much more complicated than that.
The story of the nations that have won at least one or even multiple World Cups comes down to a convergence of many factors but probably the most crucial is a soccer (football) culture. The nations that have been able to win or compete well at World Cups all have a culture that supports and/or increases their success on the field. Culture, in very general terms, can be characterized by the statement “People like us, do things like this.” So in those high performing soccer nations, people do several things that perpetuate the high level of play or induce improvement. Generally speaking this is not a top down process. Culture is a product of many little decisions made by thousands or millions of individuals, not a handful of powerful individuals making decisions. So if World Cup success is in the future for the United States, it will follow the adoption of a soccer culture, not create one.
So even though the size of Iceland does not matter, the fact that so many Icelandic people do the Viking clap does. It sends a message to every single player on the team and child who is adopting the game. The message is “This matters to us!” That message changes the daily actions of people. Given the choice between extra ball work or not, players in those environments recognize that something important is at stake.
With that understanding well established, I will go back to the title. If the USMNT doesn’t win the World Cup in/by 2026, it’s my fault! This statement may seem crazy to some but if you’ve been paying attention it becomes plainly obvious. Culture is created by individual decisions made by the masses. It’s on ME! And YOU! And everyone else attached to this game in the US. No longer can we hope that copying Barcelona drills or hiring English trainers or attending foreign friendlies on their summer tours is enough. Every one of us that considers ourselves a part of soccer in the US needs to up their game. What does that mean?
It means action by the many. In some ways this endeavor is truly in line with American culture (of the past at least). It is almost inherently American to identify a challenge and conquer it. For most of our country’s history, that was almost common place. We (the people) took on monumental tasks as a collective. Unfortunately we seem to be at a point in history where we expect other people to do it for us. We can outsource it or it’s the government, corporation or system’s fault that things aren’t going right. The problem lies with someone else or it’s just too hard and I can’t be bothered. FUCK THAT!!! We need to step up for the next eight years! Not in some grandiose, out of reach way but in simple ways that can have a cumulative effect. The main thing that will be required is a long term view. So here are some of my suggestions based on a variety of perspectives. It’s by no means a complete list but it’s a start. Add your own thoughts in the comments.
Watch MLS games – More eyes = more dollars = better players = better league = better US player pool. If you watch the EPL or la Liga but don’t watch MLS, you need to start. I know that MLS is not as good as the top leagues at the moment. However if we don’t pay attention now, it won’t have the monetary resources to get better.
Focus on players getting better – If you’re a parent, coach, or associated with youth soccer in any other way; put progress of the player over the result on the day. This is so extremely difficult for people to embrace because the desire for status is so hardwired into our minds. One of the reasons that we continue to struggle on the international stage is that we are enamored with being the biggest fish in the small pond.
Be active – There are all kinds of ways that the US soccer culture could improve but it needs people to do. Passivity is only going to perpetuate mediocrity. Let your voice be heard, your actions be seen and your passion be felt. You matter in this endeavor.
As you finish up reading this article, I hope that you have a small inkling of the feeling that I have. It’s only a matter of time before the US wins a World Cup. Soccer is no longer the game for everyone else but US. The momentum of the sport in this country is well on its way but now it needs our help to reach escape velocity. To overcome the inertia of ambivalence and low expectations, WE all must do our small part to reach the highest of heights. But there are no guarantees. WE must bet on the fact that together it will be enough. And if it’s not! IT’S MY FAULT!
*I’ve chosen a watermelon because it is my favorite fruit. It’s also large but lacks overpowering flavor and its seeds are possibly potent but they are often discarded or made to disappear before they can materialize.