How the U.S. learned to love soccer
USA fans in Chicago watch their team's World Cup game against Portugal.
June 26th, 2014
10:35 AM ET

How the U.S. learned to love soccer

As an England football fan, I’m well used to the national mood swings that ebb and flow with the fortunes of my country’s team at major tournaments. For a youthful supporter in 1990 and 1996, glorious semi-final runs have defined my recollections of those entire summers.

Equally, the catastrophic capitulation to Germany in 2010 and numerous penalty shootout fiascos are recalled much less fondly.

Either way, something I had usually taken for granted was that every few years I could expect the England team to compete on a major international stage and - for a few weeks - it felt like the whole country was in it together.

Win or lose and whether the failure was triumphant or abject, there was always something comforting about the collective, patriotic experience.

Having moved to the United States a couple of years ago, it quickly struck me that American sports fans have never experienced anything like it.

This is a hugely sporty country. Roughly 120 million people tune in for the Superbowl every February, the baseball and basketball seasons seemingly never end, there’s a rabid obsession with collegiate sports and all of the above are pervasive in everyday popular culture.

But rarely, if ever, does America unite to cheer on a collective team against the rest of the world.

The basketball and ice hockey squads sent to the Olympics every other year hardly get the collective pulses racing and we all know that baseball’s World Series is the biggest misnomer in all of sport.

Most American sports fans would choose their own provincial teams over the country as a whole.

But since 1986, there has been the opportunity to emotionally invest in something bigger.

Their football players, the ‘soccer’ team or the US men’s national team (USMNT) has qualified for the World Cup every four years. The trouble was, nobody noticed. Soccer was hitherto seen as a high-school game for girls and the butt of smug anchor jokes on ESPN’s nightly flagship show ‘SportsCenter.’

Historically, it’s been a hard game for Americans to embrace. There’s not enough scoring and there’s not always a winner. Even in meaningless baseball, basketball and hockey games they’ll play all night until one of the teams emerges victorious.

In almost every other country, the quarterfinal run of 2002 would have made national news, but here - barely anyone noticed. And the few Americans who did care were mocked internally for their ridiculous exuberance and for what was perceived as a limited and or geeky knowledge of the game and its history.

In 2010, the satirical publication ‘The Onion’ mocked the country’s ‘lone soccer fan’, whose ‘World Cup fever’ was becoming ‘insufferable’ to his colleagues at work. The message was pretty clear - anyone eschewing American football, baseball or basketball for soccer was an outsider, a loser.

And this year, with a cult following of more than 350,000 on Twitter, there is @USASoccerGuy who account provides a running commentary of the tournament, lampooning the Americanization of football with phrases like ‘headkicks’ (headers), ‘death strikes’ (penalties) and ‘felony cards’ whenever a player is booked or sent off.

However, there is growing evidence that those stereotypes may not be quite as accurate as they used to be.

There is little doubt that, across the land, the U.S. is finally being seduced by soccer’s charms. NBC’s successful first season of covering England’s Premier League - (with the right package, every match can be watched live here - is validation of the burgeoning interest.

Anecdotally, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to make many new acquaintances, who rank soccer as their favourite sport.

As we gather to watch our sons play baseball –- one of those boys is called Beckham - the conversation typically revolves around the latest Premier League drama and the fortunes, in particular, of Everton. USA and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard’s connection means that many Americans have a soft spot for the Toffeemen.

Curiously, these friends don’t like what they see as a European game being ‘Americanized’ by broadcasters like Fox Sports. They much prefer the British commentators and analysts found on NBC or ESPN, because it’s obvious they understand the history and culture and haven’t had to learn it from a book.

Meanwhile, television viewing figures for this World Cup are breaking records. ESPN’s ratings are up 30% on the 2010 event, while the Spanish-language Univision reports an increase of 50%.

Across both channels, Sunday’s dramatic 2-2 draw between the USA and Portugal topped 25 million, a figure that easily trumped the decisive game five of the NBA finals (nearly 18 million) the previous week and thrashed the average audiences for the World Series (14.9 million) and the Stanley Cup Final (five million).

And the real figure is certainly higher because the Nielsen research doesn’t account for the audience consuming the action on phones or computers or en-masse in bars and fan parks.

Many more are absent from the count altogether because they’re in Brazil to watch the action live. FIFA sold more than 154,000 tickets to supporters in the United States, by far the most of any country except Brazil. USA players at the tournament have said it feels like they’re playing home games at this World Cup.

Whatever happens during the Germany game and possibly beyond, 10 of the 23-man squad will return to play out the rest of the Major League Soccer (MLS) season, a league that has been rapidly growing in size over the last decade.

Since the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, seven new teams have been added with three or four slated to kick-off in the coming years. The expansion is proof of the growing interest and the atmospheres at games in Seattle and Portland would be the envy of some Premier League clubs.

Nonetheless it would still be a stretch to say the U.S. is gripped by ‘football fever.’

The sheer size of the country means it will be a long time before the nation collectively holds its breath during a World Cup game, and it may never happen.

But the last two USA games alone have undoubtedly made a few converts and forced all American sports fans to acknowledge at least one thing: tied games don’t have to be boring.

They might not have liked the heartbreaking draw against Portugal, but no one could ever claim it wasn’t a pulsating, breathtaking, edge-of-the-seat experience!

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Filed under:  Football • World Sport Analysis
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. amaothman

    I agree! Not much of an American fan, in fact not at all, but they do put on a solid performance. German coaching perhaps?

    I'll be watching today, because it's a possibility they might be facing Algeria next should we draw/win against Russia. And then that brings me back to 2010 and that Donavan goal that haunts me till this day.

    Cheers to the game! And viva l'algerie!

    June 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  2. Luz Mery Ortiz

    My marker, Germany 1 – U. S. 1

    June 26, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  3. Alberto

    Very well written. Got shivers!

    June 26, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  4. Anno

    It was a very good read for me! Good article!

    June 26, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  5. Mauro

    Something that you don't learn in books are terms like (Gambetear, He has the ball tied, and Ole!!) Messi, The best of the world!

    June 27, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  6. Mauro

    Or if you like to see Someone amazing in the History of FOOTBALL you must watch PELE the living legend of this beautiful game! Yogo Bonito! Fuchiboll!

    June 27, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  7. Jon

    Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, has been for a very long time, and if you don't agree with that then you are living in a bubble. Unfortunately many Americans (and I am a very proud American) do that a lot. What I like about the team this year is some of the players (not all) have no timidity. They understand the international arena, have played in it and succeeded in it. In the past, we have gone on the field with fear as if high schoolers were playing a college team, but not anymore. Anyway, the biggest way to get people to change perceptions will be through winning, and I sincerely hope the US beat Belgium on Tuesday!

    June 29, 2014 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  8. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Team USA has a wonderful coach. Jurgen Klinsmann has played and coached at the highest level. The current team has given tough time to Ghana, Portugal, Germany and Belgium. Good for the game and much motivation to aspiring young footballers.

    July 3, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  9. Mauro

    Analyzing the game last Tuesday (USA against Belgica) your team has gave everything in the field, I watched the entire game and they have left the Heart and soul till the end! Don't loose that spirit that makes this game so amazing! Yogo Bonito!

    July 3, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  10. Frost

    Great to see football receiving the recognition it deserves in the US. Incredible athletes, incredible skill, very tactical and can create huge suspense. One reason it may suffer in the US is the fear that it may gain at the expense of an incumbent sport, hence the defensive attacks on "soccer"? I am certain there is space for soccer to gain without hurting any of the incumbents. Or perhaps there is uncertainty as to where it lies relative to other US sports? Would it help if American Football were called "Soccer" (where you "sock" people and hardly ever use your feet) and soccer were called "Football", where you use your erhm, feet? Perhaps this would accelerate the understanding of the sport and its relative position with respect to other US sports?

    July 4, 2014 at 8:18 am | Reply
  11. kcidybom

    Nice article. I'm an American who fell in love with soccer (Hey – it's the name for the game the Brits coined and we and the Aussies kept using) while living in Germany in the early 70's. I don't think that soccer's rising popularity in the US will happen at the expense of more traditional American sports. I follow basketball and soccer (domestic and international) closely. If all those MLS and EPL games I watch disappeared I'd not likely substitute American football, baseball or hockey games for them.

    July 14, 2014 at 2:46 am | Reply

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