It was on a Saturday at turkey camp last spring. I ended the hunt early to watch my favorite American sports team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, face FC Dallas in what would eventually be a 3-2 loss to the Texan soccer team. Despite late goals from Ola Kamara and Emmanuel Boateng, and a Dallas player sent off with a red card, reducing Dallas to 10 men, L.A. could not pull together a win or even a draw.
But the result was neither here nor there.
The significance of that day that stands out the most in my memory was when my hunting buddy Marcus returned to the cabin to learn in stark realization that the United States — our home country — had a professional soccer league. He was under the impression we played internationally in the FIFA World Cup every four years, and then the players of the national team dicked around in the three-year “offseason.”
As a blatantly, psychopathically immense fan of the sport, this sentiment hurt me — hard — and right in the heart, more so than a six-hour bacon cheeseburger bender at Culver’s.
It hurt me, nigh offended me, but it did not surprise me.
Marcus simply reinforced the old fallacy commonly misknown across the country that association football (the official name of soccer) is not a popular sport. I cannot completely blame him for the misunderstanding; after all, the sport harbors a stigma common in our culture. We live in a country whose official national pastime is baseball, whose families crowd around the television each Super Bowl in the millions and whose offices draw up their annual bracket pools each March Madness.
As ball sports go, we as an American culture prefer American inventions — baseball, basketball, American football and stock car racing. Ice hockey, a mostly Canadian development, earns an honorable mention.
And yet soccer, very much a European import, hasn’t seemed to earn the same respect. You have heard the criticisms, no doubt: It’s a low scoring game. Games end in a potential draw or tie. There isn’t enough physical contact. It isn’t very popular. Yadda, yadda … yadda.
These criticisms have created a soccer-shaming subculture that has relegated the sport to a “game” for women, children, Latin American immigrants and hipsters … something acknowledged, but not respected with any sense of dignity.
“Fun to play, boring to watch.” Sort of like lacrosse, or bowling, et cetera.
And yet these criticisms lack any context or comparison.
Soccer games are, indeed, typically low scoring. Each goal is worth one point, not three, five, seven or whatever. A solid win might end 2-1. A 3-0 win is considered dominating. While this score line might appear low, to say it is uneventful is misleading. The action is constant. According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, the average professional soccer player runs seven miles per game. Compare that to the average American football wide receiver or cornerback who runs only 1.25 miles per game. The farthest run by a professional basketball player was Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls, at 2.72 miles on average.
In the same study, the Wall Street Journal calculates out of 90 minutes of each game, there is an average of only 11 minutes of active ball play in American football. In soccer, out of 90 minutes, there is 90 minutes of ball play. The clock does not stop except for halftime. Any missed minutes the ball lands out of play or a player is injured is added to the end of each half. Every second is filled with drama, and every goal is a gift from God (or the devil, depending on whom you support).
And there are no god-awful commercial breaks.
And about the physical contact? Yes, in terms of toughness, soccer players are no MMA fighters. There are no quarterback sacks or body checks as there are in football or ice hockey, respectively. But a solid slide tackle from a tactful defender would certainly penalize a basketball or baseball player. It’s very much a contact sport, but if you crave full body man-to-man action, perhaps WWE is the more appropriate choice.
And as for the popularity, maybe take off the blinders and look around. True, Michigan isn’t the foremost soccer-rich environment. While this state harbors great semi-professional teams in Lansing, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Detroit, it has yet to secure a Major League Soccer (MLS) home team (though rumors abound). At the same time, when Spain’s Real Madrid faced England’s Manchester United in 2014 at the University of Michigan’s “big house” stadium in Ann Arbor, tickets sold out. That’s more than 100,000 “women, children and hipsters.”
Meanwhile, in other states, average MLS attendance to games has risen to more than 21,000 per game in 2016. Home attendance for Georgia’s Atlanta United was more than double that in 2017. Total MLS game attendance in 2016 was more than seven million, which was three times as much as 2002. The game, as a spectator sport, is growing — not slowly, and not quietly.
According to a Gallup poll from Jan. 4, 2018, soccer has overtaken hockey as America’s fourth-most favorite sport to watch, ranking in at 7 percent of people age 18 to 55 polled. That number is up from three percent in 2014. That increase might seem small, but compare that to the measly 1 percent rise for hockey (4 percent up from three), and the decline in percentage for football (37, down from 39), basketball (11, down from 12) and baseball (9 percent, down from 13), and the results are clear. Soccer is the fastest growing sport in America. Within three years, it is expected to overtake baseball as the country’s third-most popular spectator sport. Within ten years, it will overtake basketball as the second.
American football should be safe for at least 30 years or so.
Hopefully, with these words I have convinced you to give the sport a second look, if not a second chance. While it will always have its naysayers, that number is looking to shrink each year. Association football is an exciting, enticing and all-around entertaining sport whose fans measure in the millions nationwide, and billions worldwide. So maybe choke back the hard-to-swallow pills, cast aside the ignorant prejudices and go ahead and pick your favorite team. (Bonus points if you choose the LA Galaxy.)
My friend Marcus knows better now. Do you?