It’s that time of year again: when the Premier League teams are on their summer break, the transfer window is open but hasn’t hit its stride yet, and “Euro Snobs” have no soccer to watch because Major League Soccer isn’t “good enough” for them. I have no definitive answers to say where that ‘I’m a Premier League fan so I’m holier than thou’ mindset began, but I have confidence that because the soccer culture is changing in America, MLS, NASL and the other lower tier leagues within the soccer pyramid will continue to see a growth in the popularity in local teams.
Now, as a fan of soccer – in general – I think it’s safe to say that most people, me included, are supporters of a club overseas. That may be because a parent is a fan of a Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, or Bundesliga team, and in turn, disseminates to the child (example: my dad was a fan of Tottenham and by osmosis, I became one too). That may be because there is a friend connection and they support a certain team overseas. That may even be because the person is unaware there is a team located geographically close to them in the American system, and they feel obliged to support a PL team. That could also be because a person thinks the only way to support soccer is by watching and listening to Gary Neville, Gary Lineker or Jamie Redknapp, etc. at an ungodly time in the morning on Sky Sports or BBC. However, who’s to say that supporting an MLS team is not “hip” or that American soccer is just not as exciting as overseas leagues. Let’s just call those excuses for what they are: unsubstantiated (in layman’s terms: the excuses are crap).
And before you bring up these points: no, soccer doesn’t have the history it does in other parts of the world and Major League Soccer only turned 18 this year; no, there is no promotion/relegation in place and if it does get set up, it won’t be for years; and no, MLS, NASL, USL-PRO, and PDL teams don’t get as much publicity as they should.
I recently chatted with a friend, Jacob, who had never been to an MLS game until about a month ago. You see, my friend Joshua just recently got married and for his bachelor party, all the groomsmen went to the Sporting KC vs. Montreal Impact match at Sporting Park. Jacob said something like this, “Katherine, though I don’t really like watching soccer, being at the game was one of the most fun things I’ve done. The atmosphere was great and we had awesome seats near the goal.” What Jacob mentioned to me, I believe, says something about the soccer culture in the U.S. and how soccer will continue to chip away at the softening exterior of the American sports culture that often just glances at the sport and doesn’t seem (usually) to take soccer seriously.
Tell me when the last time SportsCenter or ESPN – any channel besides something that solely focuses on soccer (like Fox Soccer) – had a video package, showed clips, or went through that day’s scores similar to an MLB game day or when the NFL is in season (regardless of the type of game: i.e. MLS Cup, MLS regular schedule game, U.S. Open Cup game, etc.). Yea, I can’t remember either. Well, that is, unless there was a spectacular goal in a game or if a station is showing a game’s highlights between probably LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. (I’m not bashing either LA or RBNY; it’s just a fact that they’re the most well-known MLS teams, and therefore, most likely to be highlighted on TV.) And then of course, there are the people thinking they’re oh-so-cute who see the #USMNT hashtag on twitter and say, ‘Saw #USMNT trending and thought it meant United States Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ 1. That’s overdone. 2. It’s not cute, nor funny.
So how are people who enjoy foreign soccer supposed to “get into” domestic football when all they do is bash it?
Go to the games, support local soccer, watch MLS on TV or from MLS Live, visit an official U.S. Soccer bar when there’s a U.S. game on and meet people who enjoy soccer in America, wear MLS, NASL, and the like’s paraphernalia (scarves, jerseys, t-shirts, etc.), and the simplest of all: talk about American soccer.
Even the littlest of things or turn of events could change someone glancing at a television into someone who is glued to the TV for World Cup Qualifiers only a few months later. For example, my roommate and I went to Buffalo Wild Wings in the fall on a Friday since there was a World Cup Qualifier on ESPN or some regular cable channel (not BeIn sport…anything but BeIn, please!). When Susan and I arrived not one channel was turned to the game – how that is possible, I do not know – but there were multiple channels tuned in to the NFL Combine…yes, you read that correctly…the NFL Combine. I couldn’t believe what was going on. Here are a bunch of huge linebackers running their 40-yard dashes and yet there is not one person who loves our country enough to change the channel to watch a soccer game full of 11 men playing a beautiful game AND representing this amazing country. Preposterous. There had to be a change. So of course, I asked our server to change the channel, in which he willfully obliged my request, and once that happened, people at other tables actually watched as well. Now, I’m not saying I started a movement or a revolution, but, as I said earlier, it’s the littlest things that ignite the fire. What’s the catalyst for people to enjoy soccer at a restaurant or bar? Turn on the game. People will watch.
What’s more, for the Jamaica vs. USMNT World Cup Qualifying game, the American Outlaws – the USMNT supporters’ group – had a social media-driven movement to get non-soccer fans – or at least those who aren’t as ‘into the sport as others’ – to watch a game and hopefully get hooked to the atmosphere and the sport. Free Beer Movement partnered with AO chapters and if you type their hashtag #PourItForward, you will see it was a ‘success’ – whatever that means in the appropriate terms. Regardless of the level of success that #PourItForward garnered, American Outlaw chapters continue growing because the game keeps growing.
In response to the growth of soccer, people care about the cause and effect of MLS – whether that means they want a promotion/relegation system, a team (or two or three) in the Southeast, a team in Minnesota or San Antonio or San Diego or Fill-in-the-blank-city, how NYCFC will fit in the scheme of things regarding a RBNY feud and how Manchester City might use the team as a mainly loaner team to the English club, and the list goes on and on.
One of the most encouraging facts, as of late, is the attendance at June’s World Cup Qualifiers at home in Seattle and Sandy, Utah: 40,847 and 20,250, respectively. Just look at the American Outlaw supporters section – led by AO Seattle – at CenturyLink when the USMNT played Panama, look me in the eyes and tell me it’s not a beautiful sight. You’ll be lying if you do, because that is truly a beautiful sight.
Going to a USMNT game might be a good first step for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy soccer but will enjoy the atmosphere – but by the end of the match, they’ll wonder how they hadn’t attended a soccer game before – but I believe going to a local game will help improve not only the regional teams and rivalries, but will also help cultivate increasing local soccer supporters. And there should be no excuse for those people who say, “I don’t have a soccer team located near my city (or town).” That statement is false and I will prove it to you…
Major League Soccer has 19 (now 20 if you include NYCFC) teams located across the United States and Canada for your football watching entertainment in Massachusetts (New England Revolution), Quebec (Montreal Impact), New York* (*technically New Jersey – New York Red Bulls), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Union), D.C. (D.C. United), Toronto (Toronto FC), Ohio (Columbus Crew), Illinois (Chicago Fire), Kansas (Sporting Kansas City), Texas (Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas), Colorado (Colorado Rapids), Utah (Real Salt Lake), California (Chivas USA, LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes), Oregon (Portland Timbers), Washington (Seattle Sounders), and British Columbia (Vancouver Whitecaps). So take your pick, people, there’s lots of choices – albeit there’s a lot of space in the Southeast and Midwest that are lacking teams (meaning there are no teams) in MLS, but that’s a story for another time.
If MLS isn’t your thing, there are a few other leagues that could catch your fancy. The North American Soccer League – which is one league below MLS – has a plethora of quality players ready for your support. The NASL is located in New York (NY Cosmos), North Carolina (Carolina RailHawks), Florida (Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies), Georgia (Atlanta Silverbacks), Minnesota (Minnesota United FC), Texas (San Antonio Scorpions), Alberta (FC Edmonton), and three teams that join the league in 2014: Ontario (Ottawa Fury), Virginia (Virginia Cavalry), and Indiana (Indy Eleven).
Beyond the top two tiers of American soccer is the USL-PRO division as well as the Professional Development League (PDL).
Check out this Wikipedia map (don’t throw stones at me, please) of locations of soccer teams.
And trust me when I say, there are fans everywhere – no matter the league of the club or the amount of supporters – and they will come to the games no matter what. Even the caliber of players and fan appreciation in any selection of the U.S. soccer tier is paramount. Here’s a video of the NASL’s Minnesota United FC players singing to its supporters after a game (this was their season ticket promotion video):
And if you thought that last video was something, here are a few players from MNUFC coming out to a game to support their own supporters. Very cool.
So what should current supporters do to spread the game? As I mentioned previously – go to games but take others with you who have never gone to a game, watch it whenever possible and make your friends watch it with you (maybe have some sort of an incentive), get your buddies to help pick out your MLS Fantasy team (and to do so, they’d have to know the players, so you look up the previous week’s game and clips) for the week, play FIFA, or even better yet, get outside and play soccer yourself whether your kicking the ball against a garage door or in a park playing pick-up. Soccer is a sport for the people; it’s a sport for all. (I talked to my mom the other day and she said that my step-dad and her watched the Confederations Cup game between Italy and Mexico – my step-dad is originally from Italy – and she said, “I forgot how much I love the game. The speed of it and how exciting it is.” This is a woman who coached me for a few years when I was in elementary school and watched me play for years but hasn’t seen much of it in more recent years, but still enjoys it.)
The more people who understand the game – maybe not all of the subtleties and intricacies, but even how it’s played – and appreciate the game, the better.
So…Go! Get out there and do it.