I belong to one of the most coveted demographics in the world: a sports-loving American who has never been able to latch on to the world-dominating sport of soccer. We sit stateside, an untapped media market of nearly 300 million people up for viewership grabs, and remain lackadaisical. And there is ample reason for me, personally, to be a fan. A friend of mine earned a scholarship to play soccer at the University of Wisconsin. Several of my closest pals are diehard soccer loyalists, following not only the World Cup but their chosen English teams of Manchester United and Liverpool. I hail from Kalamazoo, Michigan, home of current US women's phenom, Lindsay Tarpley, and I attended a soccer powerhouse at Hackett Catholic Central High School (and the "Lady Irish" are tearing through the state tournament as we speak, so good luck, ladies!). So, why has the game struggled to keep my attention?
The most obvious reasons are cultural. Soccer simply doesn't follow patterns that Americans are accustomed to. I'm used to four periods of play and rampant commercial breaks. Where's the suspense in soccer? Nothing can top a do-or-die fourth and inches play on the goal line interrupted by a commercial break where Betty White gets roughed up in the dirt. Besides, commercial breaks give me time to get more beer and threaten the television set with barrages of empty cans if things don't go as I want them to. But people want to watch games with passionate individuals such as myself -- it simply makes the game more enjoyable. As one friend noted after watching a game with me, "I could be wrong but if I was a betting man I'd say we got kicked out of the bar because you were wearing tear-away pants and flashing your lucky jock strap from high school after every touchdown."
Whatever. If the police can't get me to stop doing it, what chance does the bar have?
Another major difference is the clock. In every American sport the clock winds down, not up, as it does in soccer. While seemingly innocuous, if you've had a few too many "sports drinks" (which I call beer in Gatorade squeeze bottles, for the beer drinker who doesn't have time to both open and close his mouth), this can be confusing and may even lead you to believe you're watching the game backwards. And if you've had several bottles of "sports drinks" and truly believe you're seeing the game in reverse, certain people - and I don't want to name names -- might feel a false sense of confidence that they know the final score of the game in advance, leading to losing bets and embarrassing consequences. I won't go into too much detail, but I will say this: being forced by friends to try and pick up girls all-night with the line, "Hi, my name is Scott but you can call me 'Three Inches of Disappointment,'" isn't as funny as it sounds.
But the biggest difference is in how the game is played. Americans are used to grind-it-out toughness, something our sports teach us to carry into our everyday lives. When I played high school baseball, I learned the secret of life, a principle that can be applied to any situation anywhere:
"Throw some dirt on it and man it up."
Whether a small cut, a bat to the groin, a failed marriage, or being hit by a car, throwing some dirt on it and manning it up would pull you through. You simply don't see that level of toughness in soccer (except Tim Howard), a game, it seems, that rewards players flailing about and faking injuries to draw penalties. I'm used to the Brett Favre style of sports, where you break your ribs on one play, throw up, and score a scrambling touchdown the next. Sure, he was able to play with broken ribs because of his addiction to Vicodin, but we didn't know about that until years later.
Still, this past Saturday the hype of an impending England-United States game got the best of me and I tuned in. The roar of the crowd, the strange buzzing that made the stadium sound like a hornet's nest, and the painted-face pageantry even drew a cynic such as myself in. I felt the nationwide groan of England scoring first and, with a smile from ear-to-ear, let my lucky jock strap shimmer and shake in the afternoon sunshine when Clint Dempsey made everything even.
My American bias of hating ties aside, I enjoyed what was surely a huge stepping-stone for American soccer.
Scott Janssen is a graduate student, blogger, and all-around drain on society. Follow him at his blog at www.pantslessponderings.com.