By Gabby Johnson
The American soccer season kicked off in March. Or did it?
It all depends which category of soccer fan you fall into. Many people would fit into some or perhaps all categories were they to analyze their interest in the game, but for the moment, let’s put ourselves into pigeonholes.
First there’s the fan whose season kicked off back in August when the European seasons, in particular the Barclay’s English Premier League, caused coffee on the couch at 7.30am (or three hours early for hardy souls on the west coast) to become a Saturday morning ritual. The live ESPN offering followed by a FOX Soccer Channel feeding frenzy naturally magnetizes the general soccer fan on weekends from the fall through early summer.
This fan might never climb up off her couch (or his couch, but we’re going with a generic ‘her’ here to represent me and both genders) and venture outside to see what the U.S. has to offer in its backyard. She’s been derided and accused of snobbery for ignoring the game at home, but she’s a soccer fan nonetheless and keeps up those viewing figures that prompted NBC to pay $55 million for future EPL rights, ensuring the soap opera continues to play out on our screens. (Is that really too much soccer?)
Then there’s the fan who will tell you ‘Oh I always watch the World Cup every four years. Why isn’t it played more often? I love that.’
She is arguably the most frustrating of all. The lure of watching the marquee matchups featuring the likes of Brazil, Germany and Italy (and oddly also Slovakia, North Korea and New Zealand), holds more appeal than the year-round offering of soccer on TV and in cities across the country. She loves the game, but she really doesn’t. Me, I watch beach volleyball, swimming and women’s gymnastics every four years with the same logic, but I don’t profess to love those sports.
Third and fourth in our little pigeon coup, is the true champion of soccer in the United States: the loyal fan of the homegrown game. She gets off her butt, which was most likely warming the sofa during EPL, LaLiga and Serie A offerings, and journeys eagerly to a stadium, soccer-specific or otherwise, to watch the local favorites play in MLS, NASL, USL or PDL. When her friends are clouding the water cooler with talk of home runs, touchdowns, dunks and slap shots, she will dovetail in a soccer highlight to ensure her workmates who have not yet fallen in love with the beautiful game subconsciously subscribe to its appeal.
With such a diverse population of soccer devotees across its landscape, the United States is truly unique in the soccer world. Nowhere else do you find fans whose preference might be for only one facet of the game. In Germany, for example, you won’t find a fan who follows her team home and away, but ignores the fortunes of the national team or internationals or Champions League clashes.
So it is the quirkiness of the North American soccer mentality and a continent boasting an unrivaled geographical spread of fans that presents America with a unique structure for the sport. Unlike Europe, for example, where you can’t drive more than a few miles without stumbling across a soccer club that is a member of the one pyramid of leagues that make up the sport, American is littered with gaps. There are vast areas that either do not host a professional soccer club, or are not within reasonable distance of one.
With that in mind, the United States, unlike any other country where the game thrives, surely has the landmass and the diversity to embrace two leagues, which brings me back to my original teaser: ‘The American soccer season kicked in March. Or did it?’
Of course it did, in the 19 cities that have embraced Major League Soccer. Games in Philadelphia, Vancouver, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland and San Jose attracted a total of 20,000 fans, who are testament to that.
But there are soccer fans in other cities, who may have watched the MLS Kickoff with eager anticipation, but who waited an extra few weeks for their backyard to open up and bring them live in-person action in April. They can cheer or jeer at the TV, but nothing compares to the experience of arriving at the ground, watching the players emerge from the tunnel and living every tackle, every shot at goal and every scoring celebration of your team.
So in Atlanta, Carolina, Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale, Minnesota, San Antonio and Tampa – and soon in New York, Indianapolis, Ottawa, Puerto Rico and Virginia – the soccer season truly kicked off only when the teams of the North American Soccer League took to the field – in April.
That poses the question: is the United States unique to the point where two league structures can exist side by side? Perhaps a comparison, in keeping with the English theme here, might be the Premier League and Championship operating in tandem with no promotion or relegation in place. Certainly the NASL seems to believe so and is adamant that fans in its markets will loyally follow the likes of the Silverbacks, Scorpions and Strikers for their soccer fix. The closest MLS offering to fans living in a NASL market this spring season is several hours’ drive away.
So logically, NASL fans will care about their team, their league and will venture off their sofa to watch their team in their town.
There is no escaping the reality that a marquee NASL player might wish to parade his talents in the MLS in future seasons, but by the same token, the stars of MLS – among them Howard, Dempsey, Shea and Adu – have eagerly sought a career in Europe as the next step along the path to soccer success.
In the other football, the upstart American Football League forged ahead in non-National Football League markets before its success and share of certain markets prompted a merger that set the foundation for today’s 32-team configuration. The United States Football League operated in tandem with the NFL in the 1980s and might have established a sustainable alternative football structure had it not gone head to head with the NFL.
So what does the future hold for the teams, cities and fans of football in the United States? Will their seasons continue to kick off at multiple times during the sporting calendar? Is there scope for two leagues operating independently to thrive and meet the demand of soccer fans throughout the nation?
The beauty is, there is no clear answer, only opinion and a feast of food for thought. Eat well soccer fans, whether your main course was served back in August, in March, or was put on the table in April, or if you are fasting three out of every four years.
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