Bad news for all those soccer detractors out there. Ignorance is no longer bliss. Professional soccer is now the second most popular sport in the USA in the key 12-24 age group. The NFL tops the list and Major League Baseball has slipped to fourth behind the NBA. The poll findings, conducted by ESPN/Luker, comes on the eve of the opening of Major League Soccer's season this Saturday. The United States Men's National Team sets out on the road to the 2014 Brazil World Cup this summer. The hoopla begins.
So why is soccer popular with American youth? Shouldn't nativists be starting a "stop soccer" campaign, or Rush Limbaugh be penning a tome "The War On American Sports!" Too late. Blame globalization. Blame Landon Donovan for setting off "U.S.A!" chants heard across the nation during the last World Cup. Soccer is plugged into a world feed, the global consciousness and a massive social network -- it matches the times. Combine this with the fruition of the suburban soccer game known to millions of American families and the on-going success of MLS, built from the ground up -- a good example of American craft and creativity. Un-American is no longer a charge that sticks to soccer.
What of the other indictments?
Soccer is Boring
Hardly. A game that moves for 90 minutes compared to sports where sitting down is a large part of the player action. Football has about 11 minutes of actual play. The rest of the time is filled with TV ads and replays. No question that football and baseball are great sports. But the soccer haters in those camps, increasingly a minority, need to take a look in the same-old mirror and ask themselves: Do I have time to order another Dominos pizza? Yes, you do. Crossover fans to soccer from the big two sports, an increasing number, appreciate watching a sport on TV that is not dissected by products being jammed down your throat every two minutes. That is boring.
All those low scores
The insistence on large totals of points or runs increasingly looks like an empty high-calorie diet leading to bloat and Mark McGwire's Michelin Man costume during baseball's steroid era. Appreciate soccer as a gestation -- a formation that may only deliver once but may produce the most beautiful moment. Patience, expectation, labored breathing, brushes with anxiety, angst -- at any moment they can sweep through soccer crowds. It is not up and down. Or on and off. Or even win and lose. It is not a product to be consumed like happy blind fun. Best-selling author, Nick Hornby, in his 1992 soccer memoir Fever Pitch, writes "The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score." While this may be too somber an assessment in this age of attacking flair from the likes of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, it reflects the measure of soccer being more true to life, less like a dream, more of a struggle. These days, it seems rather apt.
The MLS season kicks off on Saturday, March 10th.