On the popular blog and pod Men in Blazers, England ex-pats/U.S. Soccer super-fans Roger Bennett and Michael Davies jokingly refer to the beautiful game as “America’s Sport of the Future…since 1972.” The quip pokes fun at the notion that soccer has been poised to sweep the nation for decades, without ever actually doing so.
And it’s pretty funny to think about: How can something consistently be viewed as the fastest-growing sport in the country and yet never really arrive? However, having attended three massive matches over the past week—including the weekend’s massive Guinness International Champions Cup match between Manchester United and Real Madrid—I dare say soccer has arrived, built a mansion and started to put in a pool. It’s just happened in a different way than we expected.
Being American, generally speaking, we expect the very best. So we’ve been waiting for the best players, teams and league to emerge from America. But the key difference between soccer and our other major team sports is, this one wasn’t born here. The rest of the planet has a huge head start, and it’s going to take us a while to catch up, if we ever do.
Soccer has arrived, built a mansion and started to put in a pool. It’s just happened in a different way than we expected.
The irony is that our desire for the highest quality is one reason why the TV ratings for Major League Soccer don’t match those of the World Cup or the English Premier League. After all, why would a nation of people who want the best settle for anything less in their viewing choices?
That being said, one place the MLS has a real advantage over some American-born team sports is that actually being there truly enhances the experience of watching a match. When you’re looking down on the field, you can follow the ball, but you can also witness so much more: your favorite player’s movements, the manager’s gyrations, which subs are warming up to come in and who’s wide open for a sweet lofted pass across the field. Not to mention some pretty amusing chants.
American football has the opposite problem. It’s much more fun these days to watch at home, where you can hear the commentary, see the stats and flip between a bunch of games. Baseball’s issue is even worse: As if the game weren’t already too slow for a modern audience, the crackdown on PEDs combined with the growing popularity of defensive shifts has further limited the action, causing attendance to plummet.
Outside The Big House, a Man U fan demonstrates the only proper way to wear an Eric Cantona jersey.
Is it any wonder, then, that last Wednesday’s Liverpool-Manchester City ICC match at Yankee Stadium brought in 49,652 fans, a number greater than the turnout for any actual Yankee game this year? The contest lived up to billing, too, with a total of four mostly fantastic goals preceding a shootout won by the Reds, to the delight of the noticably pro-’Pool crowd.
Watching that match, I was amazed how many stars—Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Joe Hart, Yaya Toure—played significant minutes. I later learned that ICC sponsor Guinness requires the squads to bring and play a certain percentage of their A-Listers. Contrast that scenario with last Saturday’s exhibition match between Arsenal and the New York Red Bulls—where the biggest star who actually played was ex-Arsenal man Thierry Henry, of all people—and it’s clear that policy is working.
Of course, the unstoppable popularity of the “best” soccer was nowhere more evident than at this past Saturday’s match between Man United and Real Madrid, two of the biggest brands in the sports world. The venue? The Big House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the largest stadium in the U.S. and by some accounts the third-largest on the planet.
With daring runs and flying flicks, Bale was active from start to finish.
With mega-stars like Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale, Chicharito Hernandez and Ronaldo stepping onto the pitch, the fans were ready for a clash of titans. Everywhere I looked I saw Man U and Real Madrid colors on people of all ages. (No doubt the popularity of FIFA has a little something to do with all those five-year-olds rocking Robin Van Persie jerseys.)
In case you missed it, the match itself was excellent. Man U took an early lead on a beautiful Rooney backheel eventually leading to an Ashley Young goal. Young tallied again on a looping shot that appeared to just graze Rooney’s hair plugs. Real Madrid’s Bale then used his speed to earn and convert a penalty kick, before Man U sub Shinji Kagawa found Chicharito for a tidy header that indicated Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas is getting pretty close to el fin. A hobbled Ronaldo came on late and showcased a few trademark stepovers, but the damage was done and Man U prevailed 3-1.
When it was over, the stadium announcer revealed that the confirmed attendance of 109,318 made us the largest crowd to ever attend a soccer match in the United States. The sweaty, satisfied crowd roared in response.
No Miami Heat game: Well before kickoff, the House was packed to scope out Rooney and Co.
Now, does it matter that none of the players on the pitch were born or raised in this country? Maybe to some. I’m more excited that a record number of people showed up to watch a couple super teams square off in the middle of a hot July day in Michigan.
To me it’s just another sign that soccer is already here. It just happened to come over from England and Spain and much of the rest of the world. But when you stop to think about it, didn’t most of us Americans, too? See you at the pool.
Lead photo courtesy of Guinness International Champions Cup. All others by author’s iPhone.