Bad news for all of you singing Ole Ole. Soccer – hell, that isn’t even the real name of the sport – is never going to be a big deal in the United States.
Why? Let me dive to the turf screaming and clutching my leg while I explain why.
“Major League Soccer” (MLS) isn’t major league. It isn’t even much of a minor league. Figure the English Premier League as the majors, along with La Liga in Spain. Italy and Germany would be the equivalent of Triple-A baseball. Holland, France, Brazil, Mexico, they’d be Double-A. The Central American leagues, Japan, they’d be Single-A. Then maybe put “major league soccer” in there at low Single-A. Do you think baseball would be successful in the USA if the best thing you could see was the Charleston Bats vs. the Asheville Tourists? Or hockey would work here if all we had to look forward to was the Fresno Falcons vs. the Long Beach Ice Dogs? A league whose champion couldn’t win a single game in the English Premier League is not going to excite the American imagination. The league is so bad that the best American players would rather sit on the bench for Hertha Berlin or Manchester City than play regularly for the San Jose Earthquakes or the Chicago Fire. (What? There’s no team called the New Orleans Katrinas?) ... (continue reading)
The competitive problem isn’t just on the field. Central American and Asian leagues have only baseball to contend with for the big-time sporting dollar, and in Europe, it’s just a half-assed basketball league and – what? Cycling? Rugby? In the U.S., the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are undisputed leaders in their sports, marketing powerhouses with long traditions and passionate fans. It’d be tough for the MLS to break through even if its product was world class, or there wasn’t a tradition here of suburban boys and girls giving up the sport the minute they hit puberty.
There is a constituency for soccer here. Unfortunately, U.S. soccer authorities ignore it or actively try to avoid it. I speak, of course, of the millions of Americans of Central and South American descent. Soccer programs in the U.S. don’t put any effort in Latin communities to developing talent there. The U.S. national teams rarely have a significant Latin component and there has never been an American star of Latin descent.
Besides that –and this is almost beyond comprehension – the U.S. national team schedules its home games to avoid Latin attendance. Yes, you read that right. When the team plays at home against Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, etc., the games are held in places like Columbus and Boston. Places without large Latin-American communities. The theory is that we don’t want the stands packed with people rooting for the other team. Forget that many of those fans would be delighted to root for the American team, or that they could be won over. (The U.S. national team owns Mexico. Since the year 2000, the U.S. is 10-2-2 against El Tricolores.) Forget that these Latin-American fans have money that is just as green and just as nurturing of the sport as anybody else’s.
The MLS has made a few faltering efforts to involve Latin fans. Two teams in the league have Latin orientations. One is Chivas USA in Los Angeles, a pale (in every sense of the word) copy of its parent in Guadalajara. The team has only three Mexican nationals on its current roster and has never made it out of the first round of the MLS playoffs. The other Latin affinity team is a partner with European powerhouse Real Madrid. They’re located in – I swear I’m not making this up – Salt Lake City.
Then there’s the MLS schedule. Everywhere else in the world, the soccer season runs from August through May. Here, it’s June to November. American fans, the MLS contends, simply won’t tolerate the cold and wind and stuff, so the league plays a schedule that guarantees that no world class player will have anything to do with it and that every soccer fan (and FIFA, the governing body of soccer worldwide) thinks is bogus. It’d be like starting a baseball league and playing a schedule from September to February. How do you think a league like that would do competing with major league baseball?
That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for soccer. Obviously, the Latin thing could be an opportunity instead of a failure, and no sport except hockey has as much to gain from the spread of high def TV as soccer does. If the leaders of the sport here in America do everything right, hey, I see a future in which American soccer is spoken of in the same breath as women’s college basketball or lacrosse. Ole!