Soccer has arrived. Soccer is one the verge of arriving. Or soccer will never arrive. That’s the debate that resurfaces every time the sport captures headlines in the US. The subject first surfaced when NBC’s broadcast of the ’66 World Cup final drew high TV ratings. It occurred when Pele joined the Cosmos, when the US hosted the ’94 World Cup, when the women won the World Cup in ’99, when David Beckham joined the Galaxy, and this past week after the US’s stirring comeback against Brazil.
The debate is as silly as it is inevitable. There are no magic bullets. There is never going to be one moment that catapults soccer on to center stage, alongside baseball, basketball, and football.
None of the Big Three (note that hockey is not a major sport here) have ever had a magic bullet either. The NFL loves to tout the impact of the ’58 title game between the Colts and the Giants, the so-called Greatest Game Ever, but pro football had been growing steadily since the end of World War II. College Basketball supposedly came of age in 1979 when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State played Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the NCAA final. The game, which was a bit anticlimactic, did draw the highest ratings in college basketball history, but NBC had been televising the final live in primetime for six years.
There are no magic bullets, just quantum leaps. The NBA grew in fits & starts because of the Celtics dynasty and Wilt Chamberlain, the Knicks’ teams in the early 70s, the arrival of Magic and Bird, and Michael Jordan a short time later. Baseball may have been saved by Babe Ruth after the Black Sox Scandal, but Ruth just had to restore faith in what was already our National Pastime.
By contrast, Pele was asked to do more than a Ruthian job when he signed with the Cosmos in ’75; he was asked to pull soccer up by its own bootstraps. The professional league, the NASL was floundering; kids were just beginning to take up the sport in large numbers; old folks, especially journalists, were taught to despise what they did not understand; and soccer-mad immigrant communities constituted a small minority.
Despite these obstacles, he put soccer on the map. The networks started showing matches, the Cosmos drew more than 47,000 fans a game, the year after he retired, and several other NASL franchises flourished for half a decade. Make no mistake, the credibility he brought made it possible for the US to successfully bid to host the ’94 World Cup.
So where does the sport stand now?
Despite the fact that Major League Soccer has never had a Pele (sorry Becks, I saw Pele and you’re no Pele) or nearly as many stars as the NASL, it is a lot more stable. The kids who played the sport have grown into adults and more kids than ever play. Most of the old, hostile journalists have died. Marketers cater to the large immigrant communities. And, bonus, women seem to like the sport better than any of the Big Three.
Yet soccer is not close to joining the holy sporting trinity. Why? Because the US has not produced a single superstar, or even a star (with the possible exception of a goalkeeper or two). We produce B- players, more than ever, mind you, but not enough to form the backbone of a domestic league, and most of those players move abroad to line their wallets and further their education.
The fact that they have to play elsewhere to acquire soccer nous is a huge problem. The younger journalists may not hate soccer, but they are not exactly well versed either. Generations of kids may have been taught to kick a ball, but they were often coached by know-little-or-nothing adults. Virtually every major match is on TV, at least on niche channels, but the quality of the commentary—note how the announcers’ thoughts wander unless a scoring chance is imminent—is really quite awful. The bottom line is that that the US has a very low soccer IQ.
So when will soccer fully arrive? When we produce enough stars and B- players to man a first-tier league. When we will start producing enough of those players? When the quality of the coaching, commentary, and TV coverage is high enough to morph into a culture, like football, basketball, and baseball already enjoy.
MLS has made great strides in this regard. A thriving fan culture is developing and Beckham’s arrival, despite all the problems that have occurred, still may end up representing a quantum leap in credibility. But the problem, with all due respect to Spice Boy’s underwear billboards, is that there is still not nearly enough beef. 37,000 fans may turn out to watch each Seattle Sounders’ match, but they are not going to tune in to watch Houston play San Jose unless the quality of the soccer improves a hell of a lot. The thrust of the solution does not lie with packaging players like Beckham, it requires transforming our youth system and educating the public to appreciate the subtleties of the game.
~ Ken Pendleton