The Aspect of Soccer at which the U.S. is Beating Everyone Else

The American football community – and that is the football played worldwide using the feet, the one with a World Cup and no Super Bowl – is often the butt of many jokes.

We call the game soccer, for starters. Our league cannot compare to the best in the world, even if our commentators and pundits sometimes like to think otherwise. Hell, the MLS used to take penalties from halfway, something which always seems to be revived on social media every few months.

Yes, we’re different in many ways. But sometimes that difference is far and away for the best.

I’m talking about the name of our men’s national team. USMNT: United States Men’s National Team.

It may seem quite uninteresting at first, but let me now relay the name of our women’s national team. USWNT: United States Women’s National Team.

Did you catch it? Let me, just for contrast, share you the names of England’s men’s and women’s teams.

Men’s: England National Football Team. Women’s: England National Women’s Football Team.

Get it now?

This is a trend found all over national sports teams, in and out of soccer/football. The men’s team is just the “national team,” and the women’s team requires the “women’s” addendum. Sure, it’s probably a relic from the early days of the sport in the 1800s, when only men played the sport at the highest levels, and there was only one national team, regardless of gender. But now, it implies that, while the men’s team represents all of the nation, the women’s team needs clarifying that no, this isn’t the default (that being the men’s team), this is that other team.

Now, I’m not going to claim that the U.S. has it all figured out. Our top professional leagues are called Major League Soccer (men) and the National Women’s Soccer League (women, duh).

And that’s not even getting into the incredible disparities in pay or media coverage, or the other myriad of ingrained sexism that propagates through sport in general.

These various discriminations are being tackled, but only at an unacceptably slow pace. For example, in July 2017, a professional/semiprofessional football team announced they would pay men and women players the same for the first time (link).

Clearly, there’s so so so much more that needs to be done to bridge the gap between men’s and women’s football, and for that matter, men’s and women’s sport in general.

But at least the U.S. can claim a bit of soccer notoriety.

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Soccer Has Come

A pastime devised by our former colonial rulers in the 1800s, soccer is undoubtedly the world’s sport. The World Cup is the most watched sporting event on the planet, and even club competitions such as the Premier League and Champions League garner more attention worldwide than perhaps any others. While the majority of Earth’s human population has been infatuated by this competition for well over a century, as many know, America hasn’t. Over the last hundred-plus years, sports such as football, baseball, basketball, and hockey have dominated the minds of the nation. Today, though, the US’s sporting landscape is changing quickly. Soccer is no longer a backwater sport, clinging to small audiences still in love from playing as eight-year-olds. Premier league, La Liga, and Bundesliga jerseys are dotting the land, and MLS’s attendances are quickly climbing. And come the World Cup (women’s or men’s), the American Outlaws gather nationwide to try and push the US to victory.

Soccer has always faced a difficult task breaking into the mainstream attention of American sports fans. Basketball, baseball, and football all have origin stories in the states. Coincidentally (probably not) these represent the traditional three biggest leagues: the NBA, NFL, and MLB. Soccer, on the other hand, comes from across the pond. Far and away the biggest in the UK and Europe (with a few one-off exceptions), the sport was only ever a pastime of the American youth. Strangely, few sports in America have as much participation as soccer. There are youth rec leagues across the nation, and more often than not a random person you see will have played in one at some point. Ask that person if they still play, however, and you’ll likely get an answer other than yes.

Something that has stuck with me since an early age, as a diehard fan and current competitive player of the sport, is the disparity in the commonplace of soccer among youth in America. While the sport is played across the country, until recently, you’d have been hard done by to locate a couple kids walking down the street kicking a soccer ball around. This activity is a regularity in countries around the globe, but instead is replaced by basketballs, footballs, and baseballs in America (generally thrown, though, and less so kicked). Even though I’ve never played any of those three sports in any sort of competitive environment, I know how to shoot/throw/hit those objects as well as any average person. Give a soccer ball to a random person on the street, and they could well be made to look a bit of a fool.

While most my life I’ve had a rather downtrodden view of soccer, assuming the sport I love would never reach mainstream public attention, a recent trip to NYC has changed that. Yes, over the past six years the sport has been visibly growing in the US: television audiences have grown, the MLS has attracted bigger names, and every Premier League and Champions League, World Cup, European Championship, and Gold Cup match can be viewed via major television networks, the culture of soccer has flourished now too. In Brooklyn, right across the river from Wall Street, a huge open-air soccer complex lay on water’s edge, filled with people of all ages having a kickabout. With and expanded European Championship and Copa America Centenaro (a special tournament consisting of teams from North, Central, South America, and the Caribbean) providing up to five games a day, every bar or restaurant with a TV had a match on. Soccer jerseys outnumbered their football, baseball, and basketball counterparts. And children ran through the streets and parks joyously kicking soccer balls, honing their skills in an activity masked by joy.

Soccer still isn’t America’s number one sport, and MLS is by no means America’s number one league (the Premier League has more American viewers than MLS by all accounts). Yet soccer has come. People know the sport. They know the players. They watch the games. They play FIFA on PlayStation and Xbox. No longer is soccer something people only briefly flirt with as kids. No longer is it something to be scoffed at by football, basketball, baseball, and hockey fans. Soccer is the world’s sport, a song sung by billions, a chorus now joined by American voices, passionate and proud.