On the Growth of European Soccer in the U.S. and Why It’s OK

*This post originally appeared on footsmoke.com (now taken over by some creepy cyber-poster) in the Summer of 2009. I still think it’s essentially true. Since writing this, fans’ appetite for MLS has increased. And so, I think, has the quality of the national product.



Ah, summer soccer in America. When we can all put our loafers up, crack a requisitely ice cold Miller Lite, and take in some of that industrious Major League Soccer all of these scallywags have been talking about … oh you’ve got Stella? Wait, Barcelona’s playing? Maybe next year….

In a lot of ways, foreign club tours of America have exposed just how secondary MLS’s secondary status is – even in its home country – compared to foreign soccer. To accommodate big-market European teams, MLS clubs have rearranged their schedules and literally rolled out lush new grass carpets at the feet of foreign royalty. Small tribes of MLS fans stomp their feet and spears in jealousy while fans pack one American stadium after another to drool over super clubs like Inter, AC Milan, and Chelsea. While MLS attendance stagnates. While league television ratings even drop.

Some people, like Kartik Krishnaiyer over at MLS Talk, get pretty pissed about all this. I’ll quote a chunk of a recent diatribe:

“Fans of the beautiful game believe anything that happens to have an American flavor is somehow tainted, even though many of them have not given the American game a real opportunity. People claim to support the game but yet turn their backs on their own domestic leagues and national team without really ever really developing knowledge about them.

We hear “fans” bash CONCACAF and the quality of the opposing national teams when they have not taken the time to watch Panama, Honduras or Jamaica play. Their judgments are not independent but reflect a peer pressure from “educated” fans of the game and certain elements of the press as well as American based bloggers who ignore the domestic game.

I do not fault ESPN for showing these games. They have learned through the hard knocks of MLS’ absolutely pitiful TV ratings, as well as a decline in USMNT TV ratings over the past several years (until the Confederations Cup, of course) that European football sells in the US. But I do fault those “fans” that seem oblivious to the game in this country acting as if the next few weeks are the greatest in football for this country. Those “fans” are among what is holding the game back here in the United States.”

I want to give Kartik a big hug. I understand the frustration and even anger he feels toward Europhile American fans who look down their toffee-smeared noses at American soccer. I understand wanting to shake the glassy-eyed twinkle out of the eyes of casual fans who don’t realize that they could watch MLS or USL teams outside their back door.

But I don’t really understand the way some hard-core MLS fans have framed a battle between true American soccer fans and pretenders. Can someone explain to me how more exposure to the game, especially such a high quality brand of soccer, is bad?  Should we stop importing foreign beer if it’s better and undermines our domestic product? And should we blame those who want to pay to drink it?

Importing a refined foreign product only helps American soccer fans, of which MLS fans represent a small but growing subset, continue to develop a comparison to their domestic product. It should help erode the snobbery and ignorance of American fans, or at least it will as long as American soccer continues to close the gap that separates it from Europe. Fans will see Seattle play a fiery and even game with Chelsea for 90 minutes, despite losing 2-0. They will watch MLS games held as part of double-headers after Barcelona and Milan games. And some on the cuff will be converted when they realize, you know what, American soccer is bad, but it’s not that bad goddammit, or at least not bad enough to ignore anymore. They will think, it’s kind of like some American beer – cheaper, grittier, and a lot less pretentious. Then again, you’re right Kartik. A lot of American fans need a slap in the face.

Is Soccer the New Poker?

This isn’t necessarily a new era for American soccer. But it does seem like a new era of marketing and exposure for soccer, mostly foreign soccer, in the U.S.. Although America has accommodated foreign clubs for centuries, we’re seeing foreign clubs exhibited and marketed like never before.

I grew up watching as much scrambled soccer as I did porn on television. Kids these days have it easy. Both porn and soccer are readily accessible. ESPN and Fox continue to increase their soccer coverage – mostly of the foreign game. They’re not dumb. Demand exists, and it exists because these leagues are the tits.

For this reason, EPL teams will probably become household names before domestic teams do. It’s already happening. Teenagers bounce out of bed to watch Chelsea games. College kids pass out with a Fabregas through ball sliding its way into their dreams. MLS fans need to accept this no matter how much it hurts. More European soccer won’t necessarily help MLS attendance or TV ratings. It might even hurt our domestic game’s ratings. Like, I won’t be the only one watching Tottenham vs. Portsmouth on Saturdays instead of Dallas vs. D.C. United. But this is how the game will grow here in the long term, with impressionable youngsters emulating swarthy icons with slippery last names. These icons might be a little more flamboyant with prettier hair than the ones we’re used to, but they’ll have to do in the absence of any truly magnetizing magicians in the U.S.. Sorry Beckham.

While we wait for them, our domestic game will grow, slowly. And we will send our best players to Europe. And we will bring European players here to go to seed. And we will watch MLS during halftime of replays of Premier League games. And we will grow toward a foreign sun. Meanwhile, the home roots of the game continue to squirm beneath us, live and hungry and waiting to recognize their turn.

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