To begin, I am going to tell you two stories about me and my love of soccer. I promise there is a reason for telling these stories, but should you wish to skip those, the section entitled “Growth in America” begins the meat of this article.
Meeting My Love
I remember the moment I fell in love with soccer like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2010, my brother and I turned on the TV to watch some sporting event that was supposed to be starting soon. I honestly can not tell you what we were waiting on, but I can tell you everything about what I unintentionally watched. Without knowing it, I was watching the biggest match in the world, the World Cup final.
The first thing I noticed was how invested the fans were. The stadium was packed and so loud. I had never seen an environment like that before. I do not remember how long I watched the match before Iniesta scored the winning goal, but it could not have been more than five or ten minutes. If I am being perfectly honest, I do not actually remember the goal itself. What I remember is the emotion. I remember the stands erupting, the players running around not knowing what to do with the excitement, and the pride etched all over their faces. I remember the Dutch players and fans’ heartbreak. My only conscious thought was, “Wow, it means so much!”
In fact, that was my only thought watching the rest of the match and trophy presentation. I might not have even been able to tell you the nation that won. The winner did not matter to me. All I saw was how much it meant to every single person, on both sides. I had never seen that before. At that time, I had watched a few Super Bowls and some of the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but I had never seen emotion like that.
As I started to process what I had seen, another thought hit me. These players were playing on a national team. At that point in my life, I did not realize team sports had national teams outside of the Olympics. I knew gymnastics did in a way, but that was largely an individual sport. It was so intriguing to me to see players representing their country in their sport. It was a new concept to me, and I immediately loved it.
Falling For THe Boys in Sky Blue
Knowing how I fell in love with the sport, my guess is that it will be pretty easy to infer how I fell in love with Manchester City. I will be honest though, I was not all that into the club game originally. Nothing at the club level was able to match the emotion and passion of the World Cup Final. The club game was more boring to me at first. It just did not seem to matter as much.
That all changed one Sunday in May. The 13th of May in 2012 to be exact. I did not see the match live. I found out about it afterward. The first time I saw Agüero’s goal was a YouTube video that came up as I was watching highlights of the USWNT at the 2012 London Olympics. Agüero’s goal had the same effect on me as seeing Iniesta’s World Cup-winning goal, for the same reason. I saw the same passion and energy. Even the commentary on that video was full of excitement and passion. I cried watching it.
After seeing that goal and what it meant to the fans and players, I looked up why. Doing so, I learned Manchester City’s history. It was the first league title in many years, and over rivals Manchester United too! I learned about promotion and relegation, something that I did not know existed until that day. Eventually, I started to understand that the club game could be just as passionate as the international game. I wish I could say I became fully invested in Manchester City that day, but I did not. That would not come for several years. I just was not ready for the club game yet. I never forgot that moment though.
When Christian Pulisic starting breaking through at Dortmund, I started getting more invested in club soccer. It did not take me long to start watching the Premier League. Eventually, I found my way back to Manchester City very naturally. I watched them play one day in their sky blue shirts and that memory from 2012 came back to me. A quick Google search told me I was watching the same team.
It is hard to explain what happened emotionally inside me at that moment. It was like something just clicked. I knew I had my team. The love I felt was so real and so deep. It was like it was always there, just asleep. I honestly believe it was. It was there the moment I saw what I would later learn was called 93:20. That second in time, now permanently inked on my body, was the moment I fell in love. I just did not know it yet.
Growth In America
First, what a lot of the hardcore USMNT soccer fans need to realize is we know too much. I do not mean that in a bad or degrading way at all. What I mean is that we are so analytical and technical that we lose sight of what draws people into the beautiful game. I know for myself, and I am sure many others, learning and studying that side of the game deeps the love and appreciation for the sport.
However, I think we forget our first introduction, no matter our age, was about nothing more than pure unfiltered joy. For me, it was watching the 2010 World Cup final and 93:20. For others, it was probably kicking a ball in the yard as a child, someone taking them to their first match, or maybe seeing a specific player on TV. Whenever that first moment of love was, it probably was not the result of heavy tactical analysis such as debating the use of a 4-3-3 versus a 3-4-3.
As USMNT fans, we are always talking about growing the game domestically. We want to get more kids playing, increase the affordability, get more fans in the stands, and bring up TV ratings. We want to share the sport we love with others in our country. Over the last 15-20 years, we have come a long way. Look how easy it is to watch Euro 2020, every match is on ESPN+ and some are even on main ESPN channels!
That said, we all know we still have a long way to go. Winning Concacaf Nations League was a step forward. Americans like to win, so an easy way to get their attention is for the USMNT to win. On Sunday, they did that. Not only did they win, but they also did it in a highly entertaining fashion. It was the type of match that someone with little to no knowledge of the sport can watch and be fascinated by. Especially given it was the national team playing. The second part about winning is it allowed some of the boys to feature on mainstream sports shows.
Mainstream Soccer Coverage
This brings me to what I want to discuss, soccer in mainstream sports media.
Last night when I saw Taylor Twellman’s video preview of a segment he did with Stephen A Smith on Euro 2020, I was ecstatic. Then I read the comments from USMNT Twitter and my heart broke. What I saw was a lot of mockery of Stephen’s lack of in-depth knowledge of the sport and fans angry about what he was looking for in a Euro 2020 team to support.
This is what makes Stephen’s segment, and other mainstream sports media segments, so important; most of these hosts do not know much about soccer and neither does their average viewer! To grow the game, we need people who do not have the most in-depth knowledge talking about the sport. The average viewer of these shows is likely someone who might know who Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are, possibly that the USWNT wins a lot, and some might have heard of Christian Pulisic. These viewers are not going to be interested in the different tactical set-ups at Euro 2020. They will tune that out immediately.
To get new viewers interested, we have to meet them where they are. Where most of these mainstream sports viewers are, is having little to no interest in soccer. To get them interested, we have to sell them the sport. We do that by selling the passion, aggression, and pageantry of soccer, and in this specific case, Euro 2020.
Stephen A Smith’s criteria for choosing a team does that. It focuses on finding a fun team to watch. Having “star power,” one of his criteria, is huge for someone watching for the first time. Big names draw people in, and in America, where we are obsessed with winning, big names tend to win. Even something as “meaningless” to more hardcore fans, like Stephen’s “no ugly uniforms” criteria, can make a huge difference to someone watching for the first time.
In that clip, Taylor Twellman also does something very intelligent. He mentions Karim Benzema’s involvement with the French national team after a long absence. He goes on to tell Stephen it was due to “a fantastic, interesting, absurd story about a sex tape.” Most diehard soccer fans already knew that. It happened over five years ago, it is not new news. However, the average viewer of this segment would most definitely not know that. That person, possibly only half listening, after hearing the words “sex tape,” would likely become very interested in what is going on. People love scandals, especially involving something like a sex tape. Even something as small as that comment from Twellman can help grow the game here.
There is another key point to be made here; respect for soccer and its acceptance as an “American” sport. Talking about soccer regularly on mainstream US sports shows helps to normalize the sport in the average sports fan’s psyche. The need for this normalization is evident reading the comments (from Americans) on Stephen A Smith’s Tweet of the segment preview.
When the well-respected sports analysts on these major sports shows regularly comment on soccer, their viewers will become more open to watching. As that process happens, both their viewers and the hosts themselves will learn more and more about the beautiful game. It is then, that soccer starts to become an accepted part of American sports culture. That is what we all want, right?
For The Hardcore AMerican Soccer Fan
I am going to be blunt; these mainstream sports segments on soccer are not meant for us. The in-depth soccer content for us already exists. ESPN has the entire ESPN FC channel with analysis and soccer-specific talk shows. Fox has soccer-specific content, like Alexi Lalas and his podcast. NBC produces soccer-specific shows too, like Men in Blazers. Those shows and content are where the analytical and tactical conversations will take place.
In the case of Stephen’s segment, it was to get people who were not going to watch Euro 2020, to watch Euro 2020. The hardcore fan who already knows about the various UEFA teams and what to expect does not need that content. Again, the hardcore fan is not the target audience. Most people that watched that whole segment, would have known almost nothing about Euro 2020 and soccer in general. We have to meet people where they are, yes even major sports show hosts.
I do not want to be pessimistic or too negative, but we really need to be careful. We can not shoot down coverage of soccer because it makes us, with our in-depth knowledge and analysis, cringe. Nothing will turn new fans away faster than us criticizing their interest and knowledge of the sport. It should not matter to us if someone watches Euro 2020 because “country X has a nice uniform.” If having a cool-looking kit gets someone to watch, that is great! It is one more person watching than before.
When I watched the World Cup Final in 2010, I knew one thing; kicking the ball into the net was a point on the scoreboard. If someone had come up to me during that match and started criticizing me because what I cared about was how invested the fans and players were, I would have never watched another match. That is what we have to be careful of. Someone watching their first tournament and loving it might want to get involved and talk about soccer. We can not shut that person down.
Basically, my point is simple; we need to welcome people to the soccer world. We have to be supportive of segments on mainstream sports shows, even though it is cringeworthy to us. The hosts of these shows may not have much to any knowledge of the sport, and guess what? That is okay. It is okay for these hosts to not know technical and tactical differences. The more they cover the sport and start to enjoy it themselves, the more they will learn. None of us knew all the technical details at first either.
As I discussed earlier, the viewers of these shows likely do not know the sport. If someone watched one of those segments and became curious, only to see the comments from soccer fans criticizing it and calling it cringeworthy, that person may not be curious anymore. At the end of the day, that is the biggest loss; to inadvertently turn someone away from soccer only because we diehard fans discouraged and put down soccer coverage we deemed subpar.
I do not want to end this negatively. There is so much to be encouraged about! After all, the only reason I have written this is that there is soccer coverage on mainstream sports shows! The game is growing all across the US right now. It is wonderful and beautiful. More and more people are starting to watch and enjoy the game we love so much. The future of the USMNT is bright, MLS is growing, soccer stadiums are being built all around the US, and people are noticing. All we have to do is keep loving the beautiful game and welcome those who are just starting to.