I want to take a softer approach to getting Americans into soccer than the EplTalk article that Faletti expounded upon earlier today. As a bit of background, I am a huge American sports fan and got into soccer recently (early 2008). While I spend an inordinate amount of time following the Gunners, a title for the Longhorns in football or basketball would still mean more to me than Cesc holding a trophy in May. I just have more invested in those fandoms than I will ever have with soccer.
For the American sports fan that is thinking about giving soccer a try, I would like to present the following reasons why I find the game to be great and why you might as well:
It is a beautiful game. Soccer matches between talent-mismatched teams can be just as dull as similar encounters in American sports. It is not uncommon in soccer to see a team at the bottom of the standings play a defensive style and just hope for a tie on the road against a top club much like an outmanned basketball team might stifle its more talented opponents by being more physical on defense and milking the shot clock. That being said, a free-flowing Champions League or Big Four game is amazing to watch (Chelsea's pathetic defensive display away against Barca in the CL semi-finals last year, not withstanding).
If you’ve only seen MLS or US international soccer and were not impressed by the quality level, you should realize that judging big club soccer on these performances is akin to not wanting to watch the Lakers play the Cavs because you weren’t impressed by Israeli league basketball. The American leagues and the national team are valuable in that they do a lot to support the game in this country, particularly among youth levels but the quality level just isn’t there (and is realistically twenty years away). You’ll get your first chance to watch top-quality English teams play each other this weekend when fourth-place Arsenal visits fifth-place Everton on Saturday and second-place Liverpool plays eighth-place (and trendy pick to improve this year) Spurs on Sunday.
The embrace of gambling. Newsflash: sports fans like to gamble. American sports leagues try to prevent gamblers from having regulated and supervised markets in which to gamble even though they must be aware that a large proportion of fans follow their sports because they gamble. A Gallup poll shows that one in six Americans bet on sports. Have you tried watching a meaningless college football bowl game without a gambling interest? I know people will do anything to avoid talking to their kinda-racist uncle from Indiana around the holidays but these games are a four-and-a-half hour mess of TV timeouts, human interest stories, and awful announcing. Six million people tuned into the Alamo Bowl last year to see Missouri play Northwestern; I'm guessing at least a third had some action on it.
Soccer leagues actually embrace gamblers; clubs accept sponsorship from betting sites, link to gambling sites from their own pages, and even advertise in-game lines with their on-field advertising. It’s nice to be treated like an adult. Unfortunately, the few online sportsbooks that are easy for Americans to fund (my current favorite is BetUS ) do not offer the smorgasbord of lines that European books do but you can still get down. I’ll be posting lines of interest throughout the season.
Relegation. If you are the one of the worst three teams in your league, you are not invited back to the league the following season (explained fully here). This means that struggling teams have an incentive to get better and games between shitty teams at the end of a season matter. The Los Angeles Clippers can be a league laughingstock for decades because they know they will still make money regardless of how good their team is. In Europe, with their level of team mismanagement, they’d be playing in some shithole in front of 500 people. Similarly, the hungry, well-managed team from a lower league has an opportunity to make the big stage.
Multiple competitions occur at once. Let’s say you’re a Minnesota Vikings fan and they start the season 0-4. There’s not much hope for the rest of the season and it’s only early October. Now imagine that you start a single-elimination tournament or a home-and-home competition on October 1 with a clean slate and that winning either of those competitions means almost as much as winning the Super Bowl . That’s basically what the Champions League and FA Cup competitions are.
The Champions League is a collection of the top 32 club teams from around Europe who begin with group play in October and the top 16 teams move onto a knockout tournament (with each leg decided by the aggregate score of a home-and-home) which lasts from January to May. Also, each country has a competition (England has the FA Cup, Spain has the Copa Del Rey, Italy has the Coppa Boring Floppa) with teams from across the nation (of all sizes). As an Arsenal fan, it was clear by mid-November that the team was not going to win the Premier League. Winning the Champions league would mean 90% as much as winning a league title and an FA Cup would mean about 50% as much. Also, since Champions League qualification is tied to your standings in your league table, it actually matters if you finish in the top four. Quick, who had the fourth best record in the NFL last year?
The timing of games fits in well with American sports. Most English weekend games are over by two in the afternoon (Spanish games start later). It’s very easy to roll a morning of great soccer into the beginning of your football day. Champions League games occur on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon; there are worse ways to spend a mid-week afternoon than playing hooky to watch a CL quarterfinal.
Also, the sport is very DVR-able. Odds are if you were to miss watching a regular season football game live, you’d probably know the result of it by the end of the day. Since soccer scores are not as pervasive here, you can go days (even weeks) with games on your DVR until you can find time to watch. With soccer becoming increasingly popular and soon to be available on ESPN2, this will be more difficult to do but not impossible.
Better yet, if you want to watch games live and reside in any city of merit, you can go to your local soccer-friendly bar. Before I was able to get Setanta at home, I would haul my ass over to Cuatro’s on Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch Arsenal matches. Sports are much more fun to watch with fellow fans, especially other die-hards who forego sleeping in to follow their team. Also, if you’re at a bar at seven in the morning, there’s usually one way the rest of the day can go and it’s badass.
The constant flow of the game. There are no commercials, timeouts, or stoppages between play. A game is over in less than two hours. This is a welcome respite from bloated American sports broadcasts.
HD is coming. Last year, the only big-time club match in HD was the Champions League final. This year, the Fox family (the regional Fox Sports Net affiliates and Fox Soccer Channel) will be showing a shit-ton of CL games in HD. I’m guessing ESPN2’s acquisition of Premier League rights will mean HD for those games. If you’ve seen World Cup or Euro Cup matches in HD, you know how big of a difference it can make in following the game. I'll get to see my first Arsenal match in HD when they take on Celtic in a Champions League match next Tuesday on FSN HD.
Celebrations. Soccer players rarely get called for excessive celebration, nowhere near the level that football and basketball players do. Stoney already posted the great Robinho celebration of last year. Just go to YouTube, look up soccer celebrations, and get ready to be enthralled. Most clips have the added bonus of being set to shitty Euro-pop.
My favorite celebration: Robbie Fowler snorting the goal line (at 1:40 of this clip) [youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/_DYsA-lm8jY&hl=en&fs=1& expand=1]
Shit-talking between managers. Take a look at quotes from managers Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson, and Rafael Benitez. Fergie and Rafa engaged in an epic and hilarious war of words last year that has only continued this offseason. You just do not get that level of candor from American coaches. Can you imagine if Bill Belichick commented about the Titans’ performance in their games or if Phil Jackson said Gregg Popovich was scared of his team?
The league title actually takes the entire season into account. There are no playoffs; each team plays the other teams in the league twice, once at home and once on the road. This means that a game in mid-August truly means just as much as one in April or May. Certainly, playoff seeding in American sports matters but lower-seeded teams can and do win championships (especially in baseball and football). A team can have a bad month and make up for it by getting hot in the playoffs to capture the title. A soccer team cannot have a bad month and expect to win their league title. The closest American equivalent is college football whose regular season is tremendously meaningful; soccer, however, does not have any of those pesky postseason issues.