Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why it’s Finally Time to Start Caring About Soccer in the United States

This is not your garden-variety soccer apologist’s post. While I am a soccer fan, I certainly don’t consider myself to be some holier-than-thou purist of the game, nor do I think of soccer detractors as thick-headed cretins whose only requirement for entertaining sports television is frenetic action and violence. But I do know that, whether we’re ready or not, soccer is coming. And now is truly the time to start tuning in.

What’s wrong with soccer?

My reasons for following soccer are inconsequential, so let’s get right to the good stuff. Ask any of the millions of people who would be proud to fall into the “red-blooded American male” category in your trusty pocket stereotype-ometer, and they’ll give you a handful of reasons that they dislike, can’t stand, or simply don’t care about soccer.

Before beginning, I’d like to point out that I’m only going to spend time refuting arguments that I believe have some modicum of sanity behind them. This does not include claims such as: “Every child in America plays soccer, and then the better athletes move to football,” or “Soccer’s only for prissy Europeans and flashy Brazilians," or especially “A sport where you can’t use your hands isn’t a sport.” Those arguments all hold no water, and if you do find someone to debate them with, I’ll advise you not to bet heavily on your winning that round.

1.       It’s boring
Reason number one is usually some variety of the “it’s too boring/not enough offense/too much walking, jogging, and standing around” argument. And, when you put it that way, it almost sounds legitimate. But then you remember that goals like this can happen in the blink of an eye, seemingly from nothing but a bunch of standing around. And it makes you realize that soccer, when you get right down to it, is the least predictable sport in the world. Picture the arduous routines ingrained into baseball and football – the tens of seconds between each pitch, and the constant huddling, play-changing, and decision-making that occurs before every down. Now realize that soccer matches are played with running time – no pauses, breaks, or timeouts. That means, at any moment during a soccer game, a team could go from some casual possession near the halfway line to a rocket-propelled goal or two in less than five seconds.

2.       There’s too much diving
Reason number two is diving. And yes, diving is a problem. You can watch videos like this and have some serious fodder in the diving debate. And in response to the claim that soccer is nothing but a tryout for the 3 meter springboard, I have two videos to show you. Both are compilations of game footage from the undisputed best players in the world at their sports. 

First, we have the best soccer player on earth, a 5-foot-7 Argentinian who was literally prescribed HGH when he was younger because of his stunted growth. He weaves through bigger defenders with the grace and balance of a figure skater, and he never dives. There are several of these videos, and you don’t need to watch more than a few highlights to understand Lionel Messi’s philosophy. He knows he is the best in the world, and he gives his team the best chance to win by playing the way he’s always played – driving the ball through the hearts of defenses and probing for goals.

On the flip side, and I’m sure you saw this coming, we have LeBron James. Yes, that LeBron James. The same 6-foot-8, 250-pound human freight train who has been dubbed the best athlete ever in a major American sport. To put it simply, he flops like a fish. He could play the exact same way that Messi does, and indeed that’s what got him to the top of the basketball mountain, but now he feels that he is owed certain calls as the resident “King.” So yes, soccer has a diving problem. But so does every sport, and at least in soccer it’s not led by the self-anointed monarch.

3.       It’s unnecessary
Once we’ve run through the previous arguments, we get to this one. This is the argument that soccer haters pull out when they want to stand up and walk away from the fight with their pride intact, the same way a spoiled child on the playground will feign indifference when a classmate has a newer toy. It’s the old “America doesn’t need soccer” defense. Many people use this tactic as a conversation-ender, and tack on something like “We’ve already got the four best sports leagues in the world, what do we need another for?” I’ll address that question shortly, but first, let’s talk about why America does need soccer.

There are a million ways to go about this response, but surprisingly, I’m going to turn to the Stoolies. Yes, Maurice from Barstool Sports Philadelphia put together a surprisingly good piece on this subject in May, just after the US men’s national team lost to Belgium. Basically, his point is a nationalist one: if the US is such a world superpower, why are we losing to countries with the population of Ohio? We are the third-largest country in the world by population, we give our children every advantage possible to let them become whatever they want, and our training facilities, coaches, and medical care are top notch. There is no way we should not be the best in the world at everything, and that in and of itself is reason enough to support the team.

I’m assuming that some portions of non-soccer-watching America won’t all of a sudden pick up the English Premier League (though NBC Sports is making it fun and easy to do so) or start following the ins and outs of the Spanish La Liga. But appealing to our sense of #MURICA makes sense, and it’s a perfect time for it. Consider: we’ve actually started winning since the publication of that Barstool piece, having rattled off 12 on the trot. Standing out among these was a 4-3, come-from-behind win at Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 13th-ranked country in the world (USA is currently 19th). Jozy Altidore continued his stellar scoring run, racking up a hat trick in Sarajevo as the Yanks stormed back for their first ever comeback win on European soil. Further, the World Cup is in less than a year, and the USA has four more qualifiers before 2013 is out. Then the last-minute tune up games begin, with our lads facing off against some of the best in the world before heading for the Brazilian sunshine and the chance for glory.

In a perfect world, American fans would watch a few qualifiers and identify their favorite players. Inevitably, these players will be Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Tim Howard – our Big Four. Fans would be curious about the clubs that these four play for, and a quick Wikipedia search would yield that two of the four – Altidore and Howard – are playing for top-tier English sides (Sunderland and Everton, respectively). Boom, just like that, America has two teams in the EPL to find, research, track, and support. And the other two players? Why, they’re playing stateside, in the quickly burgeoning MLS. For a small fee, you can take your kids to watch a game featuring one of the best soccer players that America has to offer. What more could you ask for?

The Case for Following the English Premier League
So we’ve debunked the common myths about soccer. Hopefully you’re thinking to yourself: You know what? This little sport doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, I might like to check out a few games and see what all the fuss is about. Well, if that’s the kind of stuff that’s rattling around in your head right now, you’re in luck.

NBC Sports Network, a channel that comes included in every normal cable package, is bringing unprecedented TV coverage to the US. Between the NBC Sports Network (57), NBC (10), and CNBC (thankfully only 2), there will be 69 live Premier League matches in the first three months of the season. And that’s only the start of it.

The vast majority of these games happen in the morning here. That’s right, the weekend morning. You know, that time that you’re hungover and promise yourself you’re going to work out but instead just lie in your pajamas and watch Homeland reruns? Yeah, that time can be used for watching live, compelling, hi-def Premier League action.

And trust me, it will be compelling. If you are new to the league, this is shaping up to be the most fascinating campaign in history. Seriously. The top three teams from last year, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea, are all starting the first year under a new manager. This would be like if the Broncos, Patriots, and Falcons all got new head coaches over this offseason. But it’s more than that. Because Manchester United is one of the most storied clubs in all of soccer, and their former manager was so revered that he was knighted. Imagine Bill Belichick receiving a Presidential medal next year, winning two more Super Bowls, then retiring, and you’ll have some idea of the hype around Manchester United’s new manager, David Moyes.

Diving deeper into the Premier League, though, is where it really gets good. Because this isn’t just about the crunching tackles, stunning saves, or outrageous displays of skill (really, watch that one). It’s about two things: history and tradition.

The History: Why this means so much to so many
Top-flight soccer in England started way back in 1888, and soccer has been the runaway leader for most popular sport in the country since that time. Sure, people play rugby and cricket and tennis and golf, but none of these is a religion the way that soccer (or “football”) is.

Your location, your loved ones, and your lifestyle all dictate your fandom. People are born into a football club just as surely as they’re born into a family. Just look at that term. They’re not teams, they’re football clubs, and they dot the country from top to bottom. You’ll find pockets of die-hard supporters for even the lowest-division sides. Teams that are now nearly irrelevant may have once tasted the highest glory (check out my favorite non-Premier League side, Nottingham Forest), and teams that are now dominant giants may have toiled in relative obscurity for decades, only to be saved by the seemingly bottomless pit of money thrown their way by an unnamed Russian owner coughcoughChelseacoughAbramovichcough. 

I wouldn’t claim to know the inner workings of the British psyche, but it seems to go like this. With one dominant sport in the country, a city is defined by its football club(s). If you support a club, you support all that the club stands for as it relates to your city, and by extension, you are an advocate for that city. Thus, fans who travel into an opponent’s stadium and watch their team win a hard-fought match on enemy turf are tasting the last vestiges of a long-dormant instinct: to conquer and assert dominance over another man’s territory. And if you are lucky enough to be born into a multi-club city like Liverpool or Manchester or London, your choice of squad matters that much more.

The Tradition:
In the interest of brevity, I’ll just list some of the traditions that make English soccer one of the best sports to follow in the world.

·         Relegation and promotion. This is a standings-based form of reward and punishment for every team in the eight tiered professional leagues in England. Think of the Premier League as the MLB and the lower divisions as farm teams, except no teams have affiliations with each other. After each season, the top three teams in each league’s standings move up to the next tier, and the three worst teams move down a league. This has incredible financial ramifications – one season in a higher league can bring a small club riches it could have only dreamed of before. Similarly, being dropped into a lower division sometimes forces teams to sell off valuable players in order to keep their heads above water. This makes for life-and-death games between some of the worst teams in the league near the end of the season, with a place in the richer league next season at stake. Imagine if the Astros and White Sox had to play a three-game series at the end of the season, and the loser was demoted to Triple A. Interesting, right?

·         The fans. As discussed earlier, English soccer fandom is a religion. And like all religions, it has all manner of songs, chants, incantations, prayers, and pleas. Stadiums ring with the signature song of a team, my favorite example being Liverpool’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Hearing the hordes of Liverpool supporters belt out the song after Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League triumph still brings shivers. But more than that, many fans are dedicated to the craft of fandom. They pore over the team’s transfers and acquisitions, as well as those of their opponents, and make up clever (and often rude) songs to support their men and deride the others. Some of the better ones are Manchester United’s “You Are My Solskjaer” (playing off of “You Are My Sunshine”) and Liverpool’s song for mercurial striker Fernando Torres.

·         Transfers. This is one of the more interesting facets of European football. Basically, there are no trades. Teams simply put a value on their players, and then other teams make offers for those players. If the numbers seem right at the time, a deal is struck, and the player is shipped off to a new team, league, and sometimes even country. Transfers are not restricted by national boundaries, and thus it’s impossible to discuss English soccer without tangentially referring to Europe as a whole, and indeed the entire world, as the talent pool in England is as diverse as they come. Getting back to transfers, there are two periods of the year when teams are permitted to bid for players: the summer (when the league is in its offseason) and in January (during the middle of the season). It’s interesting to note that buying and selling players based on a mutually agreed-upon price is much closer to our American version of capitalism than the player transferring practices in any major American sport. Plus, it makes great tabloid fodder when a perennially popular team buys a hulking, marginally skilled striker for 35 million pounds, then sells him two years later for 15.5 million.

·         The many, many tournaments. Conservatively, in any full season, an English Premier League team can expect to be involved in anywhere from three to seventy tournaments. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but it does seem that every few weeks there is a new cup tie (tournament game), and it’s hard to keep track of them all if you’re watching from a distance. However, narrow your focus to one team, and it becomes much easier. Following Liverpool (as I do) throughout the season presents countless opportunities to play armchair manager. Some tournament games need to be played with substitutes in order to save the top players for the more important league games, while other games demand a 100% effort, no matter the schedule. Some tournaments mean much more than others, and the Champions League (a tournament that pits the best teams in the best European leagues against each other) is considered to be the best in world soccer, even better than the World Cup. However, the fact that there are so many tournaments involving so many teams means that even teams toiling in near-obscurity taste the bright lights of Wembley Stadium in London.

Now is the time to follow the English Premier League. The games are all on NBC Sports. They’ll be over before the NFL afternoon games, so you don’t need to compromise. The immersive history, culture, and backstory of every team is a rich tapestry of glory and triumph, loss and heartbreak. It’s everything you could want in a professional sports league, and you’re not even compelled to spend hundreds of dollars to watch the team in person. Plus, almost every team has some pretty sweet jerseys.

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