U.S. Soccer Game On

The success of the U.S. men's soccer team is helping Americans to finally come round to the joys of the "beautiful game.” That's not just good for the sport, it's helping Americans understand the outside world.
Jürgen Klinsmann has led the U.S. soccer team to new heights.

The United States has long been a black hole on the world’s soccer map. A pipsqueak nation on the game’s global stage, many Americans have been defiantly oblivious to the sport played and followed so passionately in just about every other country on Earth. Partly as a result of that, the U.S. men’s national team has been ranked only 19th, on average, over the past quarter century.

Yet the dichotomy between the United States and the rest of the world has been gradually fading in recent years. More and more Americans are not only understanding and appreciating the finer points of soccer – which was once famously disparaged as “a sport for commie pansies” by New York Daily News columnist Dick Young in the 1970s – but are also embracing the game that transcends borders, languages, cultures and religions pretty much everywhere else.

America got the chance to show the world how far soccer has progressed recently when the United States hosted the Copa América Centenario. The usually South American tournament was played outside the continent for the first time as part of a celebration of the event’s 100th anniversary. It was the most important soccer tournament to be held in the United States since the 1994 World Cup.

The U.S. team had a remarkably good run, making it to the semi-finals after beating higher-ranked regional soccer powers Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador before losing to Argentina. Perhaps more importantly, it was the most popular Copa América ever, with an average attendance of 46,370 at each of the 32 games. Chile beat Argentina in a final in New Jersey watched by 82,000.

The U.S. men have upset four-time world champion Germany twice in their last three meetings.

The surging popularity of soccer in the United States, the waxing if uneven success of the U.S. men’s team and the heroics of the U.S. women’s national team, which won its third women’s World Cup last year, are helping Americans to better understand the outside world.

That is arguably the most important single reason to cheer America’s newfound affinity for soccer and its increasing prowess on the field. Understanding and appreciating “the beautiful game” is helping millions of once-so-insular Americans better understand and appreciate what moves those billions of people around the world and what makes them tick. From Berlin to Beijing, Tehran to Timbuktu and Rio to Reykjavik, soccer is the game that makes the world go round.

At the same time, the U.S. mens team’s notable success on the field against some of the best teams in the world at the Copa América and at the last quadrennial World Cup in 2014 is helping many people in countries around the world to better appreciate the United States – and perhaps better understand and respect America as well. For many, it was hard to take the United States seriously as a true global power as long as it was such a pushover in soccer.

As disturbing a notion as it might be for diehard fans of the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, soccer is by far the world’s most popular game. Some 265 million people play on soccer teams in more than 200 countries around the world. To ethnocentric Americans hooked on football, basketball and baseball it might seem like heresy, but the truth is that soccer is the world’s universal language and the closest thing it has to a universal currency.

And those billions of soccer fans and connoisseurs of the game have certainly taken notice of the improving U.S. men’s team, with its refreshing attacking style that helped it knock group-stage favorites Portugal and Ghana out of the 2014 World Cup. Everywhere you go you’ll find people who want to talk about America’s strong showing in 2014.

The U.S. men have also upset four-time world champion Germany twice in their last three meetings and stunned perennial soccer powers such as Italy, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic in exhibition games over the last four years – upsets that don’t go unnoticed. In fact the U.S. team has become so competitive in these so-called “friendly” games that it’s no longer easy to find opponents willing to play the Americans. How is that for progress?

Some 3.2 billion watched World Cup games on television in 2014, and more fans from the United States were in Brazil than any other nation aside from the host country. Many soccer fans from Buenos Aires to Barcelona were impressed that the U.S. team was beaten only 1-0 by the eventual champion Germany in the final group game. It was knocked out of the tournament in the quarterfinals by a strong Belgium team, but only after overtime.

Soccer dominates the public narrative around the world. It fills the sports pages and TV networks in pretty much every country outside of North America, dwarfing coverage of all other peripheral sports such as Formula One racing, rugby, cricket, and Alpine skiing. Entire nations come to a virtual standstill as millions collectively watch on television whenever their national teams play in the World Cup, the European Championship or Copa América tournaments.

Soccer is a game with a global set of rules, standards and schedules that have been established over the last century and a half with nary a change. The United States had nothing to do with shaping those universally accepted standards, and despite efforts to remake soccer into its own American image no other nation has followed its attempts to put its stamp on the sport.

Only in America are college soccer teams allowed virtually unlimited substitutions (the rest of the world allows three per game) or overtime periods after every game to break ties – ostensibly small yet significant changes that are out of line with the rest of the world.

Soccer games also have three outcomes: win, lose or tie. For some reason, many Americans prefer only two outcomes, win or lose, and have a nuanced aversion to ties even though for an underdog such a result can feel like a resounding victory. Similarly, Americans tend to prefer high-scoring outcomes.

But gray zones abound in the outside world and soccer, with its inconclusive results or even 0-0 ties, is simply a part of that world where clear-cut winners and losers don’t always exist. People buy tickets without any guarantee of at least one goal. That’s just the way it is. Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste to appreciate a 0-0 game. Yet, preposterous as it may seem, a game with a 0-0 final score can actually be riveting.

To appease American sensibilities, the North American Soccer League nevertheless experimented rather bizarrely with hockey-style penalty shootouts after overtime periods in which players went one-on-one against goalkeepers with a five-second clock ticking down for a run from 35 yards out. In 1981, NASL owners also considered another blasphemy – widening the goals by 2 feet and using thicker goal posts to allow for more rebound goals – to increase scoring. They also wanted games cut to 70 minutes and allow timeouts to open up windows for TV commercials. The NASL folded in 1984.

This American exceptionalism in soccer continues to this day despite the efforts of U.S. men's team coach Jürgen Klinsmann to eliminate the disconnect with the rest of the world. Mr. Klinsmann, a former German star player and World Cup winner before settling down in California two decades ago, has been the U.S. coach since 2011 and tried to blend the best of America with the best practices used elsewhere.

A mover and shaker who understands both worlds, Mr. Klinsmann is convinced the United States can one day win the World Cup. It’s an uphill battle, and he has acquired his share of adversaries along the way.

One point of contention, for instance, is that he selects for his team several dual-national Americans who grew up or live abroad. It’s a method that all the other world soccer powers have been doing, including Italy which snatched away a top American player born in New Jersey to Italian parents named Guiseppe Rossi. But some Americans have a problem with Mr. Klinsmann using dual nationals – even if some of the German-American dual nationals have fathers who were U.S. soldiers stationed abroad.

Other examples of inexpedient American exceptionalism include: Major League Soccer, the major domestic league that followed the NASL and was established after the 1994 World Cup, has seasons running from February to December while leagues in the rest of the world play their seasons from July to May. Also, in the same way the world’s best basketball players aspire to get into the NBA, the best soccer players from around the world want to play for clubs in the four best leagues: England’s Premier League, Spain’s Primera Division, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.

Clubs from those top leagues have dominated the European Champions League, the most important club competition watched around the world. It’s not a coincidence that clubs from those top four leagues have won 19 of the last 20 Champions Leagues. Those top dozen or so clubs have become multinational havens for the best players to sharpen their skills for the benefit of their national teams.

Yet in the United States, many of the top players opt to stay at home and play in the less-demanding MLS. Mr. Klinsmann regularly gets bashed for suggesting Americans could sharpen their game by playing in the top leagues in Europe. His proposal to introduce a promotion/relegation system like the rest of the world uses, where the bottom three teams are relegated to a lower division at the end of each season, is also seen as anathema by MLS owners.

The rules and traditions of soccer also seem somehow foreign to many Americans. There are just three referees trying to keep order on a field of 22 players, and many mistakes are made. But that’s how life works in the outside world – what happens is not always fair or right or even makes sense. Some soccer players also feign injuries or fouls in blatant attempts to trick the referees in a sport that has eschewed the use of instant replays. It may seem appalling to anyone with a sense of justice. But that too is a microcosm of the world.

As it is played around the world, soccer is fast and fluid without timeouts, full of action and myriad subplots, as well as artistry and suspense. It’s a game where statistics don’t always matter very much and which Americans are also falling for and getting better at every year.

The emergence of the United States as a more competitive global power in soccer is changing both America and the world outside. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is the most exciting aspect about the growing popularity and skills: It will help Americans better understand the outside world.


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