I think it’s a combination of two things: First, I just don’t like soccer. I find it boring, I think the rules are dumb (stoppage time, penalty kicks as means of deciding a draw), I think it is highly Europeanized (flopping, guys who wear capris, the insistence that we use words like “nil” when we mean zero), and it is has just never been something Americans care about and thus has never been prominent or relevant in my life. It is the sport of South America, Europe, and Africa; it’s not the sport of America. So maybe a lot of it is simply that soccer is not my cup of tea. Which is fine. Different sports appeal to different people. There are those who actually don’t like football; lots of people find baseball boring; I’d rather sit by I-80 for five hours than watch NASCAR; I’ve been told that watching golf is like watching somebody read (and I watch golf all the time). Some people love soccer; I don’t. But I do wish soccer fans would stop telling me how great soccer is and how much I should like it. I don’t. Get over it. Fix some of the quirks mentioned above, and you’ve got a chance. But as presently constituted, I just dislike soccer.
Second, and this is the big one, we (that is the US as a whole) do not care about soccer. The proof: We aren’t very good. You can argue all you want that Team USA (do we call it Team USA in the World Cup?) is competitive or up-and-coming or whatever. But the fact remains, we’re thrilled to make it out of group play—that is, make it to the round of 16. Do you think Argentina or Brazil or Germany is ever thrilled just to make the round of 16? Is the Miami Heat thrilled to make the NBA Playoffs? No. Who is? Mediocre teams like the Hawks and the Bobcats.
Maybe American interest in soccer is growing, but until the LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Richard Shermans, and Mike Trouts start playing soccer, we’re not going to improve enough to be relevant on the world scene. Our best athletes have never played soccer. In Ghana and Uruguay and France, where the athlete pool is much smaller (look at Olympic results if you doubt it) everyone who is anyone plays soccer. And their best athletes are better than our mediocre athletes. (This is not a knock on soccer players, nor am I saying that the guys of Team USA aren’t talented. But you can’t tell me these guys are the best, most talented athletes America has to offer.) Our best are playing football and basketball, or are swimming and running track. We excel in every sport in which we seriously make an effort, and so I have to ask, why aren’t we excelling in soccer?
Part of it is that soccer is such a widespread sport, so it takes more to be elite. When the Dream Team mowed down the world, the world wasn’t very good at basketball. Now it’s better, and although the US is still the crème of the crop, there is at least a crop. Soccer is the most popular sport around the world, and thus the competition is going to be stiffer than it is in most other sports. But let’s be realistic here. It’s not like we’re a walk-on trying to start at Alabama. I don’t think God has given all of the natural soccer talent to third-world countries. I think we here in America have just as much raw potential as anyone—more so, in fact. We also have the best training and facilities available. If we had the same commitment to soccer that we have to basketball or football, we’d be right up there with the other powerhouses—we might even wipe the floor with them. But we don’t have that commitment. Why not? Because we aren’t limited to soccer. People in other countries devote themselves to soccer because it is all that is available to them. We can do other things. We can play football, basketball, baseball, hockey, track and field, swimming, snowboarding, bobsledding, etc. Soccer isn’t big in America, and thus America isn’t big in soccer.
I’m not saying that we should expect to dominate, nor am I saying that if we don’t devote every resource to soccer and soccer only (I am definitely not promoting that idea) we won’t be able to have any success. But with reasonable effort and commitment, we should be able to compete at a high level if we (as a whole) really cared (look at every other sport)—as good as the rest of the world is. Getting out of group play should be expected. Anything less should be an epic failure. (Spain?) And if we get to that level where we’re playing to win the World Cup—I mean really playing with a realistic chance, not a Miracle-on-Ice type of chance—I’d be into it, or at least care about the result. (I watched when the woman gagged away the World Cup in 2011 and was in a snit for a good half hour while I finished my homemade lemon ice.) But America isn’t near that level in men’s soccer and they never have been. Maybe they’re building…maybe it’s coming. But as long as our goal is just “to get there,” don’t ask me to get too excited. It will only end in letdown. And it just reminds the rest of the world how mediocre we really are at soccer, which frankly is kind of embarrassing. I’d rather let the world have soccer and not compete at all than act like we’ve conquered the world when we advance to the knockout round. Else, let’s find a way to get the best of our best playing soccer (albeit not at the expense of them playing football) and let’s show up in 8 or 12 years, drape ourselves in the flag, and beat the world at its sport. Then, although I may not watch 90-minute matches, I will join in the throng shouting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”