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Aug. 11, 2007

Always soccer, never football

by Andrew Kung, Online Sports Editor and Copy Editor
Last Thursday saw the biggest moment in soccer for the Washington area since Freddy Adu, as British superstar David Beckham suited up for the Los Angeles Galaxy to take on DC United in his regular season debut. League execs hope that the presence of an international superstar of Beckham's caliber will be a turning point for the sport, as soccer establishes its presence here in the US, taking its place alongside football, basketball and baseball in the pantheon of American sports.

Based on the hype alone, their dream seems to be coming true, as Beckham and family have been the biggest British imports since the Beatles, causing MLS television ratings to immediately double. When the brouhaha dies down though, one thing will be abundantly clear - America and soccer just don't mix.

Beckham's debut in DC was unspectacular, to say the least, entering the game as a substitute in the 71st minute. Although he did make a few nifty passes, Beckham was unable to reverse a 1-0 deficit, one that would eventually prevail. Sure, he's still nursing a lingering ankle injury, but for all the hoopla, the results were disappointing.

It was more of the same as his debut a few weeks ago, when Beckham played just 12 minutes in the 1-0 primetime exhibition loss to Premier League powerhouse Chelsea. The only notable play Beckham was involved in saw him take a fall as he collided with an opposing defender in what was, all things considered, just a typical play. No foul was called and play resumed without a hitch, yet ESPN continued to replay the collision time and again. Catering to a single big name is not going to reverse the misfortunes of a dying sport.

Is Beckham still a capable player on the pitch? Sure, but anything less than a superhuman performance would be a disappointment. To expect him to single-handedly carry the LA Galaxy and the MLS into national prominence is absurd, even when healthy and in his prime. Soccer is the consummate team sport, where it is near impossible for a single player to carry a team in the manner of say, Michael Jordan. Even during his glory days, which were about ten years ago, Beckham himself was not a goal scorer, but a creator, a team player whose influence was not always conspicuous.

Beckham may very well be better known for his pop star wife and celebrity lifestyle than for his play, which has been on the decline for many years now. Indeed, during the telecast of his premier, it seemed that more attention was paid to Victoria Beckham and the various celebrities in the stands than the actual game action. One begs to ask, were the thousands of Beckham jerseys the mark of newfound Galaxy supporters and American soccer fans, or just another insipid fashion statement? Is this really what soccer has come to in America, a novelty act, a celebrity spectacle?

In many ways, professional soccer and America are just not compatible. The mindset of the American sports fan is not suited to the game. For the average American sports fan, soccer has connotations of minivans, juice boxes and cheap plastic trophies, not the world's most popular sport. Even to a true American soccer fanatic, the MLS with a name like Beckham is still not very enticing.

Let's face it, in the realm of professional soccer, what we have here is third rate, if that, on the same stratum as arena football or minor league baseball. The typical player is either washed up or just not good enough to reach the next level. America is home to the top levels of professional athletics. The NBA, the MLB, the NFL and even the NHL are all considered the global pinnacles of their respective sports. One aging upper-echelon player is not enough to lift a mediocre league, no matter how fashionable his wife may be.

The vast gulf between the MLS and top-level leagues are most striking when comparing payroll. This summer, the rights for world-class striker Thierry Henry were transferred for 16.1 million, or about $32.8 million. The total base payroll for the entire league, including Beckham's $5.5 million, is just over $37 million, according to The Washington Post. When a single world-class player is worth about the same as an entire league, we know the product is far from superlative.

Upon honest reflection, the flaws of American soccer are quite clear. Frankly, the game is flat-out boring to watch. Of all the major professional sports, soccer has the longest periods and the lowest scoring, not the greatest of combinations for the entertainment dependent, video-game bred American public touting its miniscule attention spans.

In American football, a low scoring match is a gutsy defensive showdown, the mark of a championship team. In baseball, it demonstrates a rare pitching gem. In soccer, it merely indicates business as usual. Even at the highest levels, like the World Cup or the top Euro leagues, the game is plodding, with a few spectacular plays interspersed with monotonous minutes of inactivity. The water-downed talent level in the MLS bodes for even more of a snoozefest.

This past June saw the lowest rated NBA Finals in history, as the San Antonio Spurs unceremoniously defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games. Why? A matchup between two defense-oriented teams made for low-scoring, boring contests. The Spurs are probably the best all-around team in all of sportsdom through the past decade. Yet fans don't want to see solid defense and teamwork so much as highlight reel plays and high scoring action. Is soccer up to the challenge? It looks to be a difficult road ahead.

If the sport can overcome the soccer mom stigma and bring forth an entertaining product, then perhaps America will join the rest of the world as soccer fans. Who knows, perhaps a healthy Beckham can indeed be the savior of the sport. For now though, the MLS stands on the same tier as the WNBA: a small-scale, low-level league with nothing more than a constantly shrinking niche audience.



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  • RS (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 12:45 AM
    Andrew Kung, Online Sports Editor and Copy Editor, who? And who cares...
  • Kevin Lincoln (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 1:34 AM
    This article is overly ignorant of the reality of soccer throughout the world. The MLS is not just some third-rate league that functions as a place for players to go and wind down their careers in empty stadiums. Currently, the league is on the upswing (even sans Beckham). The new expansion team in Toronto is consistently selling out its games despite possessing a losing record, and the teams are starting to appear more and more similar to the world-famous clubs of Europe. International players at the top of their games, most notably Juan Pablo Angel of Colombia, Cuauhtemoc Blanco of Mexico, Carlos Pavon of Honduras, and Luciano Emilio of Brazil are thriving in the league, and American-born MLS players like Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, Sal Zizzo, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, DeMarcus Beasley, and Jozy Altidor are being shopped out and purchased by top European clubs. The league is currently on par with the top flights of Mexican, Argentinean, Dutch, Brazilian, Portuguese, and Scottish football (excluding Celtic and Rangers), and while still lagging behind the big five (England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy), it surpasses most other country's organizations. The main issue with this article is not that it suggested that MLS will not catch on with a large amount of Americans. This is a legitimate concern. The problem is that this being the reason for why it wouldn't succeed is absurd and mistaken. America is a nation of immigrants, with a vibrant and steadily growing Latino population. These individuals are insanely passionate about soccer, and currently concentrate their efforts on the Mexican Apertura and Spanish Liga. If they can be wooed to the MLS, the league will skyrocket in popularity, and this has been getting steadily more and more realistic of a possibility as the talent level in the US gets higher. That is what it comes down to, and if this tactic succeeds then the MLS will replace the fast-fading NHL in the big four of American sports leagues. If it does not, the MLS will continue to grow slowly but surely, and while it probably won't ever eclipse the quality of play in Europe, it will remain a quality and enjoyable league.
  • londonboy on August 12, 2007 at 7:36 AM
    americans are so arrogant. it is the reeason the rest of the world hates you guys!! Try asking anyone anywhere outside of North America about any of your tired american sports, and you'll find no one cares!! Go to soccerway.com and see how many countries in the world have professional football (not american) leagues. North America is not representative of the entire rest of the world as Americans seem to think in their ignorance! Don't get me wrong, Americans are great at a lot of things. But your perception of the sporting world is way off base! The reason american fans want action all the time in their sprots is because american society as a whole has no understanding of subtlty or patience. All americans understand is brute violence and constant action. Appreciating a footbal game is not all about scoring goals. Growing up with the game would give you a much deeper understanding of the finer points of the game. Like anything in life, to truly appreciate the game, you need to understand it. This goes for all games, including your beloved american football and baseball - probably the only professional sport played by out of shape old fat guys!! O and one more question - why do american football players need all that protection - we play a game called rugby in europe played by real men with just a shirt on their back and no need for protection. Just curious why the mighty all conquering americans need all that body arnour to play what to me seems to be about the same kind of contact sport. just curious....
  • mike (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 11:03 AM
    Do you know why soccer "futbol" is the most popular sport in the world? Because it is very inexpensive to play the sport. American NFL, MLB and NHL require expensive equipments which most poor countries cannot afford. Furthermore, to play "American football", ones need to be 200-300 lbs and over 6 ft tall. Most people around the world don't have the size and weight. To play Basketball, one has to be 6 ft or taller. "futbol" is the average person's sport. BTW, futbol requires the use of feet and only the goalie can use hands. In NFL football, everybody uses the hands except for one kicker. NFL should be called "handball" and the rest of the world is "futbol". NFL is popular in the USA in term of TV ratings, but it is way behind in participation compared to futbol. Why would I want my skinny kids play NFL football to break his necks? There are so many kids joining club soccer and the pop Warner NFL football league is desperately looking for players.
    Henry Kissinger is a futbol fan and I understand his view. Soccer requires tremendous skills to control the ball. Watching Pele or Maradona with the ball at their feet is liking watching a ballet. NFL football is just brute force and people do find that entertaining like boxing.
  • George Regateiro (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 12:54 PM
    Articles like this are the problem with soccer in america. The media in this country has never given soccers its due. Even with the workd cup here in 94 you were lucky if soccer made the 4th page of the sports section.

    Soccer in america is the healthiest in the world until you hit the age of 16. If the media would stop telling people how boring soccer is and start showing actuals highlights and covering the sport obejectively soccer might stand a chance in this country.

    Soccer as a team sport is what this country needs. If the media would cover the actual sports and not the over priced babies that play it maybe americans would appreciate what a real team sport that is exciting to watch for its strategy and skill.
  • zak (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 1:16 PM
    "...the game is flat out boring to watch."...?? uh, sorry? perhaps "American soccer" is but if you've ever watched true football, it is certainly far from boring. Wow, what a typical yank thing to say. Ignorant arrogance.
  • Paul Lincoln (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 3:11 PM
    Hi there,
    I live in the UK (London) and like to watch football (FYI it is football and not soccer).
    I think it's a shame that the usa doesn't take to football.
    I understand the reasons you state for Americans not liking it but you know lots of the good things in life are an acquired taste!
    If the usa did adopt football, with the amount of money you are able to throw at things you would inevitably become a top football playing nation and be able to show your skills on a world stage unlike the games you do play, i.e american football, baseball basket ball where no serious nation outside of your own recognises these games.
    Come on, show us what you've got!
  • Shane Minte (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 3:24 PM
    Look at the stats. MLS is already beating out the NHL. Whether or not its mainstream it's been on a constant uprising and will continue to get better. Hate all you want, but your voice seems to be the minority among the press.
  • Steve (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 3:27 PM
    The article is right on the mark and the cartoon of the little boy holding a football is priceless with the article.
  • will smith (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 3:28 PM
    You can't compare transfer fees to player salaries.

    The argument here seems to be soccer is boring to Americans because Americans are somehow more cretinous than the rest of the world which finds soccer so intensily exciting that for all practical purposes it's #1 and there is no # 2.

    The audience for MLS (live + TV) is not shrinking. Some teams in USL division 2 even draw 10,000 + a game.
  • Sreedhar (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 3:31 PM
    Wow!The ignorance evident in your article is mind-bending.
    The claim that even in the World Cup and European league,football has monotonous minutes of inactivity and the implication that baseball/American football/basketball is all nail-chewing excitement leads me to believe that like beauty,sport is in the eye of the beholder!The world should stop caring if football becomes popular in the US,as it has stopped caring about US sports!
  • Andrew Kung (View Email) on August 12, 2007 at 9:21 PM
    To all the commenters:

    I sincerely appreciate your feedback. I definitely understand where you're coming from, and you all make many valid points. However, there are some things I hope to clarify:

    My main point is that, based on the current landscape of American sports, soccer will never take off here as it has in most of the world just because of a single player. I for one would be thrilled to see the establishment of a competitive, entertaining league in America. However, for the reasons I have enumerated, I just don't see it happening. Fandom may indeed be an "acquire taste," but the present opportunities for said acquisition in America are far from ideal. The careful nuances and details that constitute the game do not seem to be compatible with the current action-starved American mindset.

    In no way am I trying to disparage the sport of football/soccer. In fact, I would probably consider it the most admirable in the world based on its reach and global impact. Although I do not consider myself a serious fan, I can definitely appreciate the game and its legions of dedicated supporters. There's a reason for its enormous popularity. My opinions here mainly pertain to the American point of view, which I understand may seem sacrilegious to some. In retrospect, I probably should have made this clearer.

    At any rate, I want to thank all of you for your readership. Keep the comments coming, and keep reading Silver Chips Online.


    Andrew Kung
    Silver Chips Online
  • capn crunch (View Email) on August 13, 2007 at 2:14 PM
    The reason why Beckham can't save US soccer is because he's not good. He is insanely popular, and can revive some interest, but besides his long balls and set pieces, hes nothing spectacular.
    The other problem is the media. For the most part, you don't see soccer games on TV, and only passing references are made in the news. Channels such as Setanta that show European games can cost upwards of $15 a month, money you wouldn't spend unless you were already a follower. There are other ways to watch it, for example downloading software that can stream the games,but there's no real way to get access to games without putting in some effort or money. If broadcast networks showed highlights from the Premiership (such as Martins' goal against Bolton or Gerrard's against Villa from this weekend) I think far more people would pick up an interest in the game. If I hadn't been playing soccer since first grade, I probably wouldnt have an interest in it today.
    The lack of US interest soccer was made fairly clear in the Gold Cup this year. The US won, in Chicago, in front of mostly Mexican fans. I understand that America is extremely diverse and many of the Mexican fans are probably US citizens as well, but it's disgraceful in my opinion that another country basically had home field advantage in the middle of america.

    That said, Newcastle is going to win the league this year
  • Emily (View Email) on August 13, 2007 at 8:06 PM
    It makes me mad that America watches soccer only because DAVID BECKHAM is playing now. Sure, he is insaneley hot, but when they buy tickets to a game, the should buy them to watch the team...not just Becks.
  • capn crunch (View Email) on August 15, 2007 at 3:21 PM
    you know what's disgusting?

    david beckham has his own section on stub hub. look it up
  • mango on August 22, 2007 at 1:56 PM
    It's pretty hard to watch soccer. Passes go everywhere and the camera can't be everywhere at once. In football, most of the people are concentrated in one little bunch. In basketball, you can show the whole court and you can sort of recognize the people. But not in soccer.

    The beauty in soccer is the little subtle movements, the fakes, the passes, etc. You can't really see it on television. In football, you see big guys pushing each other. Some wide receivers sprinting down the field, and watching them catch the football, that's pretty exciting.

    In football, there are different downs, it's divided into sections. That gives you chances to cheer and get excited. In soccer, the other team's kicking the ball already before you even get off of your couch and start cheering. Soccer doesn't build much suspense. Just one kick and the ball's on the other side of the field. In football, you can see the team working their way over to the end zone. Now, that's a reason to stand up and cheer.

    On a side note, the best sport to watch is chess. You can follow along in the games and think along with the player. It gives you a chance to participate; it allows you a chance to be amazed; it gives you plenty of time to cheer.

    Go Carlsen!
  • capn crunch (View Email) on August 23, 2007 at 6:02 PM
    dear "mango": It's pretty hard to watch soccer. Passes go everywhere and the camera can't be everywhere at once. It's not at all hard to watch soccer, especially not if you're actually at a game. Passes may go "everywhere" but the ball is in only one place at a time and the camera can follow it. In football, most of the people are concentrated in one little bunch. In basketball, you can show the whole court and you can sort of recognize the people. But not in soccer. In soccer you can also recognize people, by, say their number or position. The beauty in soccer is the little subtle movements, the fakes, the passes, etc. You can't really see it on television. If you ever watched soccer on television, you would know that you can see by far the majority of the action. Any neat stepover a forward uses to get by a defender, any reflex save, even the precisely timed runs are easy to see, and if you miss them, they show replays. In football, you see big guys pushing each other. Some wide receivers sprinting down the field, and watching them catch the football, that's pretty exciting. If violence is more exciting, more power to you, but soccer requires skill over strength. You don't have to be 6'2'' and 240 to play soccer as you do football, or 6'10'' like you must be to play in the Nba. Anyone can play soccer regardless of their body size. In football, there are different downs, it's divided into sections. That gives you chances to cheer and get excited. No, this gives you breaks between the excitement, just like the 3 minute commercial breaks. Soccer has none of those. Downs may build suspense, but suspense also builds on set pieces and breakaways in soccer. In soccer, the other team's kicking the ball already before you even get off of your couch and start cheering. First of all, the best place to watch soccer is in a restaurant or bar with other supporters or at the stadium itself. Even if you are at home, you can stand up with plenty of time when your team is on the counterattack or plays a cross. Premiership soccer games may be the most exciting sporting events to go to, since every club's supporters are standing and chanting basically the entire game. Soccer doesn't build much suspense. Just one kick and the ball's on the other side of the field. In football, you can see the team working their way over to the end zone. Now, that's a reason to stand up and cheer. Soccer isn't suspenseful (except for what I mentioned above) because it's much quicker. Teams cant call timeouts to rattle a kicker like they can in football, and when the game is close or tied in the last 10 minutes and into stoppage time, every touch of the ball is suspenseful. One mistake or one great play by either team and that can make the difference. And every game matters. On a side note, the best sport to watch is chess. On a side note, chess is not a sport. A sport is, by nature, physical, albeit with a mental component, but chess is all mental (thats why you can play it online). That said, I don't personally consider golf, track, or swimming sports because the way I define it a sport is an athletic competition in which one team or player can directly influence the score or performance of another, for example by scoring a goal against them. You can follow along in the games and think along with the player. It gives you a chance to participate; it allows you a chance to be amazed; it gives you plenty of time to cheer. Hooray for chess, it's still not a sport. Go Carlsen! Enough with Carlsen he almost lost that game you kept pestering me about
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