Culture of Soccer Week 7 (Men’s and Women’s Soccer in the USA) Final Essay

For week 7 of the class, our assignments focused on the development of both the men’s and women’s game in the United States.  The game moved from ethnic gatherings to the mainstream in the 20th century and culminated with the hosting of the World Cup and establishment of another domestic league. The women have been at the forefront of women’s soccer, espeically at the international level but have found maintaining a viable league a much harder propsition.  We did not have to comment on the assignment for the class blog.  Instead, one of our final essay questions addressed these topics.


Week 7 Readings:

Matthew Struttner, Charles Parrish, John Nauright, “Making Soccer ‘Major League’ in the USA and Beyond: Major League Soccer’s First Decade

Gary Hopkins, “The ‘Business’ of Youth Soccer,” in Star-Spangled Soccer (2010), pp. 218-232

Gwendolyn Oxenham, “Brincadeira: The Fearless Joy of futbol feminino in Brazil,” XI Quarterly1, 2 (2012): 36-49

Sam Borden, “A U.S. Soccer Star’s Declaration of Independence,” New York Times, April 10, 2013


Here is the Final Question and my answer for this material:

Using course materials, write an essay that discusses three key factors fueling this recent growth in popularity and then identifies the two main challenges to long-term development of soccer in this country.

The Beautiful Game in the United States has come a long way in the last 25 years.  With the qualification for the 1990 World Cup, the hosting of the 1994 World Cup and the establishment of a domestic league, the game seems primed to be a permanent part of the American sporting landscape for the foreseeable future.  Several factors have contributed to the rise of the game, yet soccer in America faces many challenges in the future.

The NASL folded in 1984 and, while this created another vacuum in the professional game, youth and college soccer grew exponentially and moved the game to closer to the mainstream (Alegi video 7).  According to Gary Hopkins, “Participation has leveled off at an impressive 16-17 million players per year” (Hopkins 218), which makes it one of the top three youth participation sports (Hopkins 229).  The growth and development of youth soccer has created a pipeline of players for the college, semi-pro and professional level, and these young players are part of the fan base for the MLS and National Team support.

Speaking of the MLS, the league kicked off their 18th season in March of 2013 and the word being bandied about was stability.  Learning lessons from the failure of the NASL—over expansion,  poor media coverage, lack of television coverage and a lack of soccer specific stadiums (Alegi video 7)—the league adopted a single entity structure and divided the financial contribution of the owner-investors (Struttner, Parrish, Nauright 3-4).  But not everything has been perfect for the league.  Contraction of teams and a lack of a broad television presence were early concerns.  Expansion efforts since the early 2000’s have been well executed and have expanded the geographic and media scope of the league, with the Pacific Northwest and Canada bringing different elements of the game.  In terms of television “local and regional media outlets increasingly carried matches” and rights were sold to NBC for the 2012 campaign (Struttner, Parrish, Nauright 12).

Other key assets of the league have been a passionate supporter culture and soccer specific stadia.  In grounds around the country, supporters are organizing and showing up to games with a fervor not seen in this country before. Tifos, chants, and flags dominate supporter sections, creating palpable advantages for home teams and establishing an atmosphere that is something to behold.  This has been aided by smaller, compact stadia built over the years.  Starting with the Columbus Crew at the turn of the century, 14 of the 19 MLS teams have a soccer only home (Alegi video 7), and these structures have led to the league overcoming some of the shortcomings of American football stadiums (Struttner, Parrish, Nauright 5).

Finally, soccer is growing in this country because fans have more access to the game.  The US is developing a soccer pyramid that, while not integrated, brings the game to more people.  Smaller semi-pro teams give fans outside major media markets a taste of live futbol.  Visit Cass Tech for a Detroit City Football Club game to experience a true match day, complete with a march to the game, fervent supporters and even hokey halftime contests.  Not only can fans engage the game in person, but, due to rapid developments in internet technology and financial investments in television contracts, matches can be seen from all over the world all weekend long.  Gone are the days of mere highlight packages and brief match reports.  Starting at 7:30am on a Saturday morning, games from South America, especially Brazil and Argentina, and Western Europe are on throughout the day on a variety of TV and internet platforms.  With the advancements of broadcast technology, these matches can be viewed in HD from a plethora of devices.  Want a break from the EPL?  Check out an Eredivisie game on WatchESPN or a La Liga game on beIN Sport or a Brazilian match on GolTV.

Unfortunately this copious amount of access to other leagues is one of the challenges that the game in the United States has to overcome as well.  US soccer must figure out a way to turn the millions of youth participants into long term fans.  In the chapter about the first decade of the MLS, mention was made of teams making a conscious effort to engage young fans (Struttner, Parrish, Nauright 8), and these efforts will need to continue as the American soccer fan can have so much contact with other leagues.  Two points to consider.  If little Johnny gets up for the early morning EPL kick off and then watches the 9:30am Bundesliga offering before heading off to his local soccer game, will he sit back down in front of the TV for the MLS Game of the Week later that night?  Or will his parents let him?  There is also the quality factor.  US soccer fans can watch high level soccer from all over the world.  Some will not settle for mediocre MLS games and that drives down attendance and TV numbers.

Moving the US soccer participant into the US soccer fan leads to the sponsorship issue.  Sponsors must be convinced that their advertising dollars will be worth the investment.  Attendance numbers for the MLS have been very healthy on average but the TV viewership numbers have been anemic at best.  Several networks have shelled out money but there is still much room for growth in this area.  Bigger TV contracts mean higher salary caps, this leads to higher player wages, which means the game is more attractive to the US athlete.

Another major challenge to the US game is attitude.  Whereas the rest of world predominantly draws their talent from poor kids looking for a way out (Hopkins 226), the US talent base is middle class suburban children looking for a college scholarship (Hopkins 226).  This difference is key.  For most Americans soccer is just something to fill the time between another sport (Hopkins 219), and even for the serious player, Hopkins makes the case that they are “over-coached and over-organized” (Hopkins 229).  This is in contrast to the pick-up culture around the world, where kids play and play and play, developing their games.  Gwendolyn Oxenham examines this in her contribution to XI Quarterly, telling of training sessions that last hours in all manner of conditions.  She also brought attention to the brincadeiras, moments of “half-game, half performance” where players “played for joy” (Oxenham 42), and exhibited “a style of life that was part joy, part energy, part fearlessness” (Oxenham 48).

While American soccer lags behind South America and Europe in terms of club and international success, great strides have been made in the last 25 years.  High rates of youth participation generate future players and fans; a developing domestic league is following the path of strong and steady growth; this growth has been illustrated in soccer specific stadia and emerging supporter culture; and due to more domestic teams at all levels, television exposure and internet technology, fans can access an ample amount of games from around the world.  However, there are still hurdles to be overcome, namely turning young fans into supporters of the American game and re-shaping the attitude of the American player from functional component to joyful artist.  The resources in this country—population, finances, and technology—are boundless.  Now for the next step.

  1. Perhaps the most interesting point that was made in this essay revolved around the reasons behind the lack of talent in the US. Though we have more money, better facilities, more access to coaching, etc., our children are less talented than foreign children, precisely because of those resources. I guess it goes to show that passion is every bit as important as natural ability and training.

    All in all, thanks for the interesting history of the growth of soccer in the US. While i wish it would be bigger, i doubt it will ever be able to compete with the big 4 because the American attention span is so short and watching a soccer game requires retraining our brains, expectations, etc.

  2. i found the readings on the development of the US player interesting as well. i believe similar parallels can be found in basketball and football, where inner city youth fight their way out of their situation and use sports as the means.

    i am actually optimistic about the long term future of soccer in the US. football will outlawed or greatly changed by the time our kids are adults; baseball will die out after the current generation of old timers and dorks dies off; hockey has already killed itself; then there’s basketball. that’s the sport of the future in terms of time (relatively short), entertainment, and participation.

    another sport to consider is lacrosse. i have held the belief that this will be the soccer larry and elijah’s generation. participation and infrastructure is growing and the sport combines hockey, football and even some elements of soccer and basketball, especially in terms of set plays.

    thanks again for reading.

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