Making it in America
American professional soccer is on the ascent and is finally entering mainstream American culture.
The middle class has long been sending children to play recreationally, and many have been playing competitively in semi-professional leagues since the turn of the 20th century. However, it was only in the wake of the national euphoria for hosting the 1994 World Cup that American professional soccer was able to merge American competitiveness and love for professional sports together to give life to Major League Soccer – a soccer league with the ability and aspiration to compete on the world stage.
Legendary soccer commentator, Seamus Malin, refers to the present, not the past, as soccer’s renaissance in the United States and anticipates its Golden Age in the future. Malin praises MLS for standardizing American soccer’s gameplay with the rest of the world, conforming to “world’s game.” President and Deputy Commissioner of MLS Mark Abbott echoes Malin’s optimism about soccer’s fu-ture in America and believes that America’s growing interest in soccer will be directed to MLS. Ross Friedman, Harvard alumnus and rookie on the Columbus Crew gives a player’s perspective on the evolution of the sport and the attraction of the American league. Malin, Abbott, and Friedman may have different vantage points for judging the recent success of American soccer, but all share a strong passion for the sport and are deeply committed to sharing their love with this country.
America’s Rejection of Soccer
Despite the pervasiveness of American culture, American sports have by and large failed to take off globally, and soccer – the “World’s Game” – has been slow to gain popularity in America. Although more than 19 million Americans play soccer recreationally or in amateur leagues, organized soccer has failed to garner the same support as the Big Four leagues.
Many experts explain this phenomenon by pointing to the inherent differences in the American and international mentalities: hyperactive Americans prefer sports with superstars, aggression, and statistics, while Europeans prefer calmer, teamwork-centric games. Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman attribute the failure of organized American soccer to its failure to gain traction early on. In their book, “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism,” they argue that in the early 20th century when the Big Four American sports were beginning to standardize their rules and be played by amateur leagues and universities, American culture looked down on soccer, a sport perceived to be foreign and non-American.
American football and baseball are also derivative of European sports, but denied their foreign roots and created new rules to be more exciting to an American audience. Although American football was created by combining the two British football games, Association Football (soccer) and Union Football (rugby), it rebranded itself as the “Boston Game.” According to Malin, in the mid-nineteenth century soccer was in fact the most popular sport, but Harvard College promoted the “Boston Game” instead for intercollegiate competitions, causing the “World’s Game” to be neglected. At that point the term “football” – previously referring to both British soccer and rugby – began to refer to American football while “soccer” – a nickname for Association Football derived from the second syllable in “association” – began to refer to Association Football.
MLS has captured a sufficiently deep audience, the core that every sports organization wants: the nutcases, the nutjobs, the beer drinkers, the bars denizens, and the fantasy players.
Although the newly invented American football quickly became the most popular American sport, soccer survived in intercollegiate competitions. However, according to Malin soccer became an “unrecognizable game” with four 22 minute quarters, a round penalty area, and kick-ins. American soccer was no longer the “World’s Game,” but rather a corrupted regional deviation of no worldwide consequence.
Early History in America
Despite being marginalized by colleges and professional sports leagues, soccer maintained a rich history among immigrants and the working class. In fact, the American team in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was entirely comprised of players from ethnic amateur leagues. Although soccer hadn’t yet become mainstream, it created a strong community for immigrants. When Seamus Malin came to Harvard College in 1958, soccer “wasn’t visible;” however, once his international friend told him about the freshman team, Malin instantly found a core group of friends.
Malin, who attended a Dublin private school, grew up playing soccer on the streets without proper nets or referees. When Malin arrived in America, soccer lowered barriers and allowed immigrants to feel comfortable in the new country. As adults, these immigrants would join amateur leagues and teach their children soccer. These immigrants enjoyed the international aspect of soccer and decried American corruptions of the game. By the late 1960’s, international coaches, including Malin, succeeded in bringing American collegiate soccer more in line with the international game.
The North American Soccer League (NASL) was founded in 1968 in the wake of unexpected excitement over England winning the 1966 World Cup that it hosted. The NASL struggled until Warner Communications bought the New York Cosmos and signed legendary footballers Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. Although Warner’s soccer investment “lost money hand over fist,” it made a fortune promoting Atari Videos and Atlantic Records internationally using Pelé and Beckenbauer as representatives. However, once Warner sold off Atari and Atlantic Records, it abandoned the Cosmos and the NASL soon collapsed.
The temporary success of the Cosmos demonstrated that Americans were interested in watching high-level soccer. The Cosmos played six home games in Giants Stadium in 1978 and averaged 60,000 spectators, with one game attracting 78,000– the highest attendance in Giant’s Stadium for any sports game. Although the league failed, many of the Cosmos fans from New York and New Jersey were children of immigrants and went on to play for the US national team.
The Transition: The 1994 World Cup
The NASL appealed mostly to immigrants, but when soccer matches in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles were well attended, FIFA took a chance and made the United States the host of the 1994 World Cup. Many doubted that Americans would attend the World Cup, but Seamus Malin, eventual announcer of the 1994 Cup told them: “You don’t get it, the entire world is in this country, people think they’d died and come to heaven because the World Cup was coming here.” Malin was right, as virtually every game was sold out with 70 to 80 thousand spectators.
The 1994 World Cup is the most highly attended and profitable World Cup to date, despite only 24 teams competing (rather than 32). Malin predicted that American immigrants would be so excited about professional soccer coming to America that they “would max their credit cards, they don’t care, this was the World Cup.” As Malin put it, “when FIFA was unhappy with the greater program by the host country, it would threaten to give the World Cup to Germany.” After the tremendous success of the 1994 World Cup, “it threatened to give it to America.”
A New Era: The Birth of MLS
MLS was founded in exchange for the privilege of hosting the 1994 World Cup. According to Malin, MLS had to walk a tight line to be a high-quality league, while not appearing to be a place for superstars to end their careers. Rather, MLS wanted to give young players, who would otherwise be sitting on a bench in Europe, a chance to develop their skills.
Mark Abbott, the president and deputy commissioner of MLS, joined three years before its first season. Abbott had the tough task of bringing soccer to a skeptical public and convincing international soccer fans in America of the legitimacy of this new league. In order for the league to be viable and competitive, MLS launched ten teams, drawing mainly on players from American talent and some well-known international players.
MLS has made concerted efforts to attract superstars playing across the globe. Abbott hopes that fans of the American national team will continue to follow Clint Dempsey and Kyle Beckerman in the MLS.
MLS initially struggled to attract spectators and remain profitable. Competing with the Big Four sports forced games to be scheduled in the off-season, from March to December. To appeal to an American audience and adjust to American geography, MLS has instituted divisional gameplay and a postseason playoff– more in line with other American sports than European soccer leagues. MLS also instituted penalty shootouts to resolve tie games, but soon adopted international standards.
As American youth soccer culture was still nowhere near as developed as in Europe, MLS created its own youth development academy and reserve league. America also has a competitive collegiate league which yields many strong players. Finally, in order to increase competition, MLS has attracted international superstars such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry by allowing teams to pay a few outsized salaries. Thus far, MLS has succeeded in cultivating American talent and attracting foreign superstars.
Into the Mainstream: Growth of MLS
MLS has grown tremendously in its 19 seasons, more than doubling the number of teams and games played, quintupling its television broadcasting revenue, and significantly increasing the number of spectators per game. MLS even surpassed the NBA and NHL to become the third most well attended sports league in the US. However, despite these gains, MLS total revenue and television viewership is far below that of the Big Four sports leagues. According to Malin, MLS has done well developing a foundation for professional soccer in the US, with the league no longer relying on foreign superstars to draw crowds.
Considering that people once went to movie theaters to watch the World Cup, soccer has made great strides in transitioning to a mainstream interest. MLS has capitalized on the fervor of the 1994 World Cup to promote recreational soccer and soccer spectatorship nationwide. In the same way that many Cosmos fans went on to play in the 1994 World Cup, many young fans 1994 World Cup went on to play in local youth leagues. Malin says the MLS “captured a sufficiently deep audience of 18-36 year old males, the core that every sports organization wants” – “the nutcases, the nutjobs,” the beer drinkers, the bars denizens, and the fantasy players.
Abbott doesn’t believe that MLS has to convince Americans to be interested in soccer, because in recent World Cups, games featuring the US national team have averaged 25-26 million American viewers. Rather, Abbott believes that MLS needs to harness the tremendous interest in international soccer and direct it toward local teams. Thus, MLS has made concerted efforts to attract superstars playing across the globe, with a focus on native Americans. Abbott hopes that fans of the American national team will continue to follow Clint Dempsey and Kyle Beckerman in the MLS. Ross Friedman, a rookie on the Columbus Crew, says that these American superstars want to build American soccer’s brand while also personally dominating the league. And he believes that although these players get preferential treatment, they significantly raise the quality of play and prominence of MLS.
American soccer teams like the Portland Lumberjacks have begun to develop their own customs and ceremonies, an important step in creating a loyal fanbase. Once a fan is invested in their local team, they are unlikely to abandon the team even during extended slumps. Malin has supported Aston Villa since he was ten years old even though they often performed mediocrely.
Soccer has an inherent authenticity due to its international prowess – MLS is playing the same game as the rest of the world. There are also many international competitions for club teams including the CONCACAF Champion’s League. Abbott hopes that Americans will support their local clubs in international competitions with the same fervor they show for the US national team.
Future Directions of MLS
Soccer has enjoyed an inherent fanbase among immigrants, but gradually collegiate soccer has risen in importance, and 25 million suburban children have taken up recreational soccer as a pastime. According to Abbott, MLS is expecting the greatest growth in its fanbase from America’s growing Hispanic immigrant population, millennials who grew up in the wake of the 1994 World Cup, and youth who are benefitting from the increased infrastructure supporting recreational soccer.
MLS has more than doubled the number of teams and games played, quintupled its television broadcasting revenue, and increased the number of spectators per game. It has surpassed the NBA and NHL to become the third most well attended sports league in the US.
Soccer’s popularity among youth is its most promising trend. Soccer is currently the second most played sport for youth in the US, behind only basketball. If MLS can convince these youth to transfer their enthusiasm for playing the sport toward enthusiasm for watching the sport, soccer has the potential to be the most popular sport in America. Abbott says that the greatest challenge in the next decade is to capitalize on the growing American interest in soccer. He recognizes that America has a rich sports culture and believes that the competition between the major leagues has created a rich market.
In order to increase the level of gameplay in American soccer, MLS must capitalize on America’s strong immigrant culture, youth soccer leagues, and the collegiate league. Malin agrees with US national team coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, that America’s reliance on collegiate talent will hold it back relative to European and South American rivals because these players don’t have time to practice enough. However, he argues that American teams will benefit greatly by “catching Hispanic players early.” In fact multiethnic America is at a great advantage because it sits at the confluence of many different soccer cultures and playing styles.
Malin believes that although “football, basketball, and baseball will always be the big three,” soccer will find its niche because America is a very sporting culture “and we love to win.” In the rest of the world, standings are recorded: wins-ties-losses; in America it’s wins-losses-ties – “in America you play to win and it’s great but a little futile.” America’s three big sports don’t allow for ties and are more attuned to American culture. According to Malin, American football is especially popular here because it “is a parochial American substitute for war…this is legalized violence.”
Friedman believes that MLS has the potential to catch up to European soccer within a few decades because of America’s diversity of soccer styles, strong athletic culture, and its relatively new youth training leagues. Friedman played in the Columbus Crew’s youth training league and was recently elevated to the major league team’s roster. He claims that collegiate soccer is frowned upon in the professional league, but personally believes that college is important to give athletes options after finishing their careers.
MLS is in a unique position to take advantage of America’s growing interest in the “World’s Game.” MLS has already taken steps by adopting standardized international rules and acknowledging soccer’s international relevance. It has also done well in growing interest among American youth and creating the infrastructure for them to pursue the sport recreationally. Lastly, MLS has shown a willingness to take advantage of all of the unique opportunities America has to offer, including diverse immigrant playing styles and a developed collegiate league. The best days are ahead for American soccer, and it definitely has the potential to establish itself at the forefront of mainstream American professional sports.