Soccer? I Hardly Know Her

By Jarrett Bellini

f the names Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride, and Eddie Johnson don’t ring a bell, it only suggests that you are an average American. This is not to say, however, that you are average in every way – for all I know, you have talent for chewing glass. Which is cool… if that’s your thing. But you are an average American when it comes to having an appreciation for soccer. To be more specific, you’ve probably heard of teen sensation, Freddie Adu, but at the utterance of the words Bruce Arena, you’d sooner picture a multi-purpose, downtown entertainment complex before considering it to be the name of the US national team’s head coach.

Despite being popular with kids, few Americans have really caught on to this whole soccer thing. I, for one, am astonished, for it never ceases to amaze me how people will willingly sit down to a three-plus hour football, baseball, or basketball game, rife with commercials and pointless studio commentary by the likes of Bill Walton (who managed to leave his brain behind at the Grateful Dead’s closing of Winterland in 1978), but can’t find it within themselves to dedicate just over an hour and half to a soccer match with only one fifteen minute commercial break during halftime. It’s almost as if Americans can’t get through their day without being told, eleven-hundred times, which watered-down lager to drink after a hard day’s work at the apple pie factory.

“But there’s no scoring in soccer.” I hear this all the time. Well, you know what, people go to trendy bars all the time and there’s NO SCORING THERE EITHER. But everybody still goes. Why? Because it’s sport. And when some guy, clad in his newest vertical-striped shirt, finally scores a girl’s phone number, a jolt of energy is charged right through his spine. My friends, that is soccer. When a goal is scored, the fans become unglued because putting one in the net is difficult and it does mean something. But, hey, if you enjoy a 200-point, non-playoff NBA game that only really comes down to the last three minutes, have at it. You can find me at home doing just about anything else, perhaps staring at the wall.

So these names I mentioned: Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride, and Eddie Johnson… who are they? Collectively, they are four of the biggest names in American soccer, today. Donovan, who came back to the states after playing in Germany, is widely considered to be the best player in the country. But, besides the fact that these guys haven’t raped, stabbed, or murdered anyone, you haven’t heard of them because they don’t personally endorse your favorite cell-phone company, aftershave, or prescription boner pill.

Yes, the world of professional soccer is a little different from other American sports, and it breaks into two categories: club and national. The top American club teams play in MLS (Major League Soccer). Now in its tenth season of existence, consisting of twelve franchises, MLS has given its fans plenty to chew on over the years. In its evolution from crap to emerging mainstream coolness, the league went through some dark stages, perhaps the darkest being the day somebody decided to name the Kansas City club, clad in rainbow attire, the Wiz. While the intention may have been to pay homage to The Wizard of Oz, one couldn’t help but associate the team with peeing on the side of the freeway. Another painful memory was when a particular team, now known simply as MetroStars, was once preceded by the ambiguously shared city-prefix of New York/New Jersey. It’s almost as bad as baseball’s Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. However, despite some healthy "Euro-snob" debate among American fans, appropriate measures have been taken, and teams now boast soccer-friendly names like FC Dallas, Réal Salt Lake, and CD Chivas USA. Though, in all fairness to Madrid supporters, Réal Salt Lake is just a cheap European knockoff due to the fact that there's nothing "royal" about the club. Anyway, consult your local purist for further explanation.

Now, while the bulk of America’s best talent ventures over to Europe to play their club ball – McBride for Fulham of the English Premier League, Beasley with PSV Eindhoven in The Netherlands – more and more Americans are choosing to stay at home to compete in MLS. Competitive salaries, the emergence of soccer specific stadiums, and the promise of not having to call your fries “chips” are shaping MLS for a successful future. Additionally, the fact that the NHL recently went on strike, seemingly upsetting none but a lonely drunkard or two in faraway Ontario, is also helping the league by giving viewers another option when it comes to low-scoring sports. But even as MLS grows and evolves, successful recognition of American soccer will always come primarily from the other category: the national team.

With only twelve top soccer clubs in America, clearly not everyone will be able to develop an emotional attachment to a particular team. Whereas the other major sports in this country have about thirty teams peppered all over the nation, fat guys in football jerseys blowing giant beer farts in the bleachers in places like Green Bay, it’s difficult to expect somebody in, say, Minneapolis, to get overly excited for any particular MLS club. However, the national team exists for everyone. And the competition is fierce.

If you haven’t heard of soccer’s World Cup, you need to be taken out into the backyard and shot. Undoubtedly, this tournament, which happens only every four years, is the biggest sporting event on the planet. Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey may declare their respective best teams in and around America as world champions, but this competition holds slightly more water when bestowing such a title… namely because soccer’s World Cup actually has something to do with the world.

Leading up to the tournament, nations must compete in more globally-localized qualifying competitions. These are games for which every American should be piling into the tavern, ordering a dark pint, and cheering for the pursuit of world domination. Seriously, do some research on the web and watch just one game. Feel the intensity of professional soccer at its highest level. You’ll be hooked. Or, I suppose, you could just stay at home on the couch and listen to Bill Walton add commentary during a televised basketball game:

“That guy has the ball. It is orange. He is dribbling. The floor is made of wood. There is a leprechaun sitting on the basket. It is waving at me and vomiting rainbows. The rainbows are turning into unicorns.”

“Um… thanks, Bill. We’ll be back with thirty more seconds of NBA action after this commercial break.”

Wake up, America.

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