The Case for United States Soccer

The 2011 Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and Japan drew an 8.6 television rating, as the country watched in near-record number as Japan stunned the world by defeating the US on Penalty Kicks, 3-1. The Finals were the culmination of a week’s worth of drama in the knockout stages of the Women’s World Cup, which included a United States comeback against powerhouse Brazil in last week’s quarterfinals, and a nail-biting semi-final match against France. The TV rating is second highest in USA Women’s Soccer history; only the 1999 World Cup Final (which the USA won on PKs vs. China) drew a bigger audience. Yesterday’s game out-rated the average rating for last year’s five game World Series. Soccer, both men’s and women’s, is at an all-time high interest in this nation, which seems to be more obsessed with which cheating collegiate school is building up the next NCAA dynasty, than it is with the World’s Game.

But how many of you are going to tune into the next MLS game? How many of you are even going to Google if there are any women’s professional soccer teams playing in your vicinity?

Landon Donovan and Abby Wambach both have proven how exciting the game can be, and how well Americans can play them. For two straight years, they have captivated America during the summer months, when baseball pennant races are just starting to heat up. Unfortunately, the realization I am fighting against is that the game will fade back into obscurity, at least until the Olympic Games next year, in London. Sure there will be the die-hards, the 35,000 that pack out CenturyLink Stadium in Seattle, the small minority of people who will take an interest in the English Premier League when it kicks off at the beginning of September, a week before the NFL Season is set to kick off. That is, if there is no lockout.

While most of us anxiously await news that Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith have settled their differences once and for all and declare an end to the lockout of a league that produces 7 billion dollars annually, American heroes such as Wambach and Hope Solo pray, perhaps fruitlessly, that their league, the Women’s Professional League, is still in existence. No, they are not troubled by a collective bargaining disagreement, but rather a culture of indifference. The WPL, which averages about 3000 people in attendance per game, is in severe financial difficulty. Instead of arguing whether the league salary cap should be sixty or seventy million dollars, the WPL salary cap is at a “cap” of 350,000. It’s more like a salary sock, when compared to the NFL.

Solo and Wambach, arguably two of the greatest women’s players in their sport, make $150,000 from their club teams. That is not even the league minimum for the third-string offensive lineman in the NFL.

Perhaps I’m used to watching women’s sports – I do cover high school basketball at an, admittedly so, unhealthy level. However, I will concede that supporting women’s soccer is a stretch, even for me.

But let’s take care of one thing at a time. Before you can walk, you must crawl. So I’ll try arguing for the men’s side of the sport instead.

Since 2009, ESPN (and their family of networks) and Fox Soccer Channel have broadcast select EPL games. Because of the time difference, these games air on Saturday morning in the fall, when most fans are painting shamrocks on their face and getting ready to cheer on Notre Dame, or LSU, or The Ohio Cheating University. If you’re not doing that, you’re mowing the lawn or raking the leaves. Perhaps as the months go on, you are Christmas Shopping or shoveling the snow out of your driveway. I get the fact that the common American has much more to worry about than what is going on in Britain. But should you get that chance, that one Saturday morning where you are not hungover, or not grocery shopping, that you do turn on the television for these games.

ESPN has put the effort in. Their coverage with the 2010 and 2011 World Cups have been universally praised. Ian Darke, who served as the lead commentator for the Women’s World Cup, has become the perceived voice of soccer in the USA. Darke’s calls of Donovan’s goal against Algeria last year’s World Cup and of Abby Wambach’s game-saver against Brazil are right up there with any call I have heard Jack Buck or Vin Scully make. I feel my play-by-play history may leave me biased in this situation, but I would watch any game that Darke commentates. Late last year, he was hired full time by ESPN, vacating his position at SKY Sports in favor of calling ESPN’s Premier League and MLS matches.

There may not be any drama in the MLS that can match Darke’s “OH CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS!?” moments of the past two years, but isn’t it worth giving it a chance? I argue that there is very little difference between a typical soccer match than a low-scoring pitcher’s duel in baseball. One moment can decide it. If in September, and your baseball team has long been eliminated, and your football team has a bye week, would you not tune into a game after you’ve witnessed the magic of the last two World Cups?

This may end up being a waste of time. I’m willing to bet my car that it is. We are too obsessed with baseball and Our Football to care about Association Football. Perhaps a better goal would be this: throwing everything else into a vacuum, a void. Pretending there is no football, no baseball, basketball or hockey. If there was nothing else to distract or entertain you, and knowing how much the Donovan goal and the Wambach header can enthrall, would soccer really be THAT bad?

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