"How come (Lionel) Messi and Wayne Rooney don't play in the same league?."
"That's not how football works mate."
This question and answer, or something similar to it is at the simplest level the reason that the website even exists today. When I first met my "Brother From Down Under" Arran Airs at a pub in 2013, I had noticed he was wearing an Arsenal shirt one day. I mentioned to him that I enjoyed football (soccer) and also supported Arsenal, but had to admit that even though I had been watching the game for 7 years, I was still struggling to understand how the different leagues worked. By the 2014 World Cup I was literally wearing him out with questions like the one above. By 2018 we had talked enough soccer that I thought we should start a website and podcast.
In these past 7 years since I met Arran, and especially in these past 2 years since we started Across The Pitch, I have gone from a guy who didn't understand what the Champions League is, to having the manager of Accrington Stanley tell me that he listens to the show. To say it has been an unbelievable and improbable journey thus far would be an understatement to say the least.
Now, I have decided to take on what is by far, my most ambitious written article since starting this journey. I look to unfold the complicated relationship between the game of association football and the American sports fan. Furthermore, and most importantly, now that I understand "how football works", I revisit the grand concept that I originally discussed with Arran back in 2013. Something that at that time I called the "World League of Soccer".
This will be a 5 part series. In Part 1; I will delve back through the past 125 years of the history of the game in the United States, and explain my theories on what had impacted the trajectory of the popularity of the sport in the country over that period. In Part 2; I will look at the history of the game starting with the birth of the modern game in the late 19th century in England, and look at how the sport has expanded across Europe, and other continents. In Part 3; I will take a take a deep dive into how leagues around the world operate, including things that are common abroad such as promotion/relegation, and the widely unchecked free market nature of world football. In Part 4; I will conversely take a deep look about how U.S. based leagues in both association football, and traditional American sports operate, including hot button topics like salary caps, and the closed franchise based systems. Finally, in Part 5; I will put everything all together, and lay out my plan for "The Future of World Football", or more precisely how I believe that the best parts of both the American and European models can be combined for the betterment of both the financial and competitive aspects of "The Beautiful Game". And of course, to provide the best product for the fans, because after all, it's not football without fans!
Now get yourself a whiskey, sit back, and enjoy.
How Football Works
Understanding how football works can be a tenuous task if you are from the United States and have never lived abroad. That is unless of course you are speaking of the form that involves things like helmets, quarterbacks, and shoulder pads. On the other hand, the association form of the game, much more commonly referred to as soccer on this side of the pond is to most a concept as foreign as the metric system or driving on the left hand side of the road.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona in the 1980's, the only games played involving a checkered patterned ball generally involved orange slices at half-time, and were played by pre-teens shuttled to the matches by moms in minivans. Even the most serious player had a career that lasted at most, through the high school or junior college levels, while professional ambitions were reserved for those who perfected their crafts on the hardwood, diamond, or gridiron. The game was a topic of interest only for a few "soccer hipsters" who lived and died with the continuously dismal results of the U.S. Men's National Team, spent their weekend afternoons playing intramural leagues, and gathered in dark and dingy pubs in the wee hours of the morning to cheer for the only club you would think existed in the world, Man U.
History Of Association Football In The United States
To understand the challenges of the U.S. soccer fan we must first examine the how and why of the fact that a sport that reigns almost unanimously supreme in terms of popularity on a global level was relegated to such obscurity here. In the realm of cliché jokes, perhaps only jokes about Presidents, annoying in-laws, and the monotony of married sex have been panned more often by sitcoms and stand-up comics over the years, than soccer's unpopularity in The States. From the lack of scoring; to Hooliganism; to some of our country's greatest intellectual commodities associating the game with communism, if you have heard one, you have heard them all. However, upon deep examination the reasons why soccer has never quite caught on in the U.S. is like an onion in that when you peel off one layer only to find another, except at the center of the onion is another onion, then inside of that onion is an anomaly wrapped up inside of an enigma, inside of Rubik's cube.
First, to say the game "never quite caught on here" is perhaps the original fallacy that gives birth to all of the other's. Just about everything that Americans (1) consider "American" came from somewhere else but was simply Americanized. Or conversely, when we actually do invent something it is at that point that we find it more prudent to advertise as if it came from somewhere else as in the case of the decidedly not Chinese, General Tso's chicken. If something is "American as apple pie" then it undoubtedly originated from northern England or the Netherlands depending on which history you believe, or in the case of the much celebrated American hamburgers (a food item named after a city in Germany) and Frankfurters (another food item named after a city in Germany) literally come with an announcement of their non-American origin written on the package. Even the Earl of Sandwich thinks that is all a bit ludicrous, but it's also relevant in answering the ultimate question about why Americans have never "made soccer their own"; or have they already and just didn't realize it?
The American Soccer
While it is commonly recognized that American Football is derived from rugby, and baseball is essentially a hybrid of the games cricket and rounders, there is no widely accepted "American version of soccer". However, although it doesn't quite as easily meet the eye test of the above examples, the truth is that a game that is among the most popular of all on this side of the pond is, in fact, "American soccer". If you haven't figured it out by now, I am of course talking about basketball. Now I know most of you are probably sitting here screaming how can a game that is played only with your hands be the same as a game played only with your feet. My question to you would be to describe what other differences exist between the objective of the two games?
While of course nothing is quite "that simplistic", a deeper examination, particularly into the origin of basketball will further illustrate how the game of basketball is in fact nothing more than "Americanized soccer". Before we get into the origin story of basketball though, at this point you are probably wondering why any of this matters. This all goes back to what I was talking about in the beginning, regarding just how obscure the sport was in this country in the 1980's and 1990's. At that point the popular opinion was that American football was to blame, another fallacy which I link to the silly argument over both sports trying to lay claim of being "the real football". This is also the same argument that led to the misplaced hatred of the word soccer (yet something else that originated in England but somehow became "an American term"). However, all of this hatred is misplaced because, as we established above, American football is a form of rugby, and therefore would appeal to the fanbase that would likely prefer rugby to soccer anyway. If any English sport should be mad at American football over its lack of popularity in America, it should be rugby. Soccer's lack of popularity sits squarely on the shoulders of basketball, and if we go back 130 years in history, I can prove it.
Dr. James Naismith's 1895 Innovation
Basketball is unique in that unlike most other sports, we have a very clear cut origin story detailing the entire who, what, where, when, why, and how of the sport's invention. This is all important because it is in these details that we can start to connect the dots between the two games. First, it is worth noting that Naismith was an experienced practitioner of many sports including lacrosse, rugby, and soccer. When inventing his new game one of the first tasks at hand was choosing from which of the already existing sports balls would be best suited. What did he choose? You have probably already guessed it by now but yes, when the legendary "first game of basketball" was played at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, it was none other than a soccer ball being lobbed into the peach basket goals that Naismith had affixed to the railing, 10 feet above the floor.
While the fact that soccer ball was chosen as the best fit for the new sport is merely anecdotal, the important piece is why they were even there in the first place. Dr. Naismith was from Canada, and had moved to Massachusetts by the time he invented basketball, but if you know anything about winters in either place, you will quickly understand the problem with playing soccer outdoors that time of year. If you have watched even a minute of English football in your life, then you will know that it's a game that can be played no matter how hard it is raining. On the other hand, when it comes to playing a game that involves kicking a ball along on the ground as the primary activity, it doesn't work so well if there are piles of snow on the pitch. This of course led Naismith, a physical education teacher at the time, scrambling to find a game that the kids could play indoors during the winter (the same months that most of the rest of the world is deep into football season). Now the United States is a massive country with plenty of biomes that are friendly to playing soccer in the winter, but in 1895 almost all of the biggest and most influential cities in the country (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago) were 3 feet deep in snow by New Year's eve.
The snow theory isn't something that is purely American either. If you look at a map and find the most storied footballing nation's though-out history (England, Brazil, Spain, Italy....) you will find one thing in common. With the exception of Germany (2), the common theme is that it doesn't snow a whole lot there. It's the same reason that Scandinavia, Poland, and even Russia aren't footballing powerhouses in spite of their European geographic location. None of this is rocket science here, climate has always played a role in which sports are popular where. It is the same reason ice hockey is the national sport of Canada, and also why that sport has begun to eclipse football in popularity in many cold, eastern European nations. These same nations are also the places in Europe that have seen an explosion in popularity of another sport over the past 30 years. Yep, you guessed it. Basketball.
The Generational Gap
Now that we have established a bit of the who and why, it is time to revisit our first fallacy from above, that soccer never caught on in the U.S.. This actually isn't quite the case. The question we really need to ask ourselves is when did soccer stop being popular in the United States. For proof that soccer was popular in this country, even in the past 100 years, you need look no further than the results of the very first World Cup in 1930. The 3rd place finisher that year was none other than the United States. This makes perfect sense considering that in the early part of the 20th century was the period in time in which the largest number of immigrants came over from Europe. Their children would end up being the first generation Americans who would grow to be of playing age around the time of the 1930 World Cup. In the 1934 World Cup the U.S. were one of 3 teams from "The Americas" to qualify. They didn't fare as well, being trounced 7-1 by eventual champion Italy (3) in the first round, but they were still one of the 3 best sides in this hemisphere to have qualified. In 1938, the United States withdrew from qualifying along with many other Western Hemisphere countries due to a dispute over the tournament being played in Europe for a second time in-a-row. Interestingly enough, it may have been this decision that would push the sport into the depths of American anonymity for the next 6 decades.
The reason being that unknown at that time, there would not be another World Cup played at all until 1950 due to the outbreak of World War II in Europe. At the same time there was less immigration happening between Europe and the United States due to the war, so you had few first generation Americans bringing their love of the sport over with them. The following year in 1939, another important event would happen when the Oregon Ducks defeated The Buckeyes of Ohio State to win what was the first ever NCAA College Basketball National Championship. In just under 45 years Dr. Naismith's vision had grown from peach baskets hanging in a YMCA to a sport being played by the largest universities in the country, in a nationally recognized tournament. By the end of the war, these now mostly second and third generation Americans were coming home to a post war world that had not seen a World Cup played in over a decade. Also, perhaps most importantly, in this post war world, these men and women who would be the parents of the "baby boomer" generation were for the first time living in a world where America wasn't the new kid on the block anymore.
During the post World War II era the United States can best be described as a post-adolescent nation filled with enough piss and vinegar to think it had nothing left to learn from the rest of the world. This is the era that gave birth to the most nauseating years of American exceptionalism, and the broad view that anything that was American was bigger and better than everything else (4). By this time baseball had long been ingrained as the nation's summer pastime. The NFL had been around since the 1920's, but it wouldn't be until the 1970's that pro (American) football would surpass its collegiate counterpart in popularity. Ice hockey had been around since the turn of the century, but only Chicago, Boston, New York, and Detroit had professional teams at the time. For most sports fans this left a gaping hole in the calendar from the time the baseball World Series would end in mid-October and opening day in early April. On June 6, 1946, 187 days after the official end of World War II the National Basketball association opened its doors to fill that hole. By the 1950 World Cup, although the United States were one of 16 teams to qualify, they came in ranked as only the 40th best team in the world, and finished dead last in their group. After that, the United States wouldn't qualify for the World Cup again until 1990.
The Modern Era Of Soccer In The United
Along with appearing in the World Cup for the first time, the decade of the 1990's included several major events that have lead to an increase in popularity of the sport in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Most notably, the 1994 World Cup. The event itself drew mixed results on this side of the pond, drawing impressive crowds, but also ending up the butt of several jokes in Jay Leno's The Tonight Show monologue each night. This was the time when the stupidest of all arguments (5) were at an all-time high. However, while the hype of the World Cup would die down quickly, when the dust had settled, an important foundation had been laid for the future of U.S. professional soccer.
That foundation of course was the creation of the MLS (6). In the beginning the MLS was little more than the Rodney Dangerfield of soccer leagues (7), but regardless of your feelings about the MLS then, or even now, it is indisputable that its existence has been one of the primary catalysts for the growth of the game in this country. Prior to the MLS, the United States had been without top tier soccer since the failed NASL of the 1970's and early 1980's. The NASL had a lifespan similar to that of the hula hoop in that it exploded onto the scene with instantly massive attendance figures, but was ultimately an unsustainable model the imploded upon itself. With the MLS, although some will still insist that its nothing more than a ponzi scheme destined for failure once the expansion fees dry up, historically speaking they are on a similar path of expansion as was seen in the NBA and NHL in the 1970's-1980's, and those leagues have gone on to thrive today. Although it could still be considered to be in its BETA test stage, the fact that the MLS is still alive 26 years later means that the experiment has lasted much longer than most pundits would have given it a chance to back in 1994.
The European Game Comes To The United States
When the next step in the evolution of the game on this side of the pond began is more difficult to pinpoint, but it happened somewhere around 2006. This is around the point in time where public perception had changed to the point that "liking soccer was cool again". It wasn't one specific event, but a number of them that contributed to these. Among them was the popularity and expanded television coverage of the exciting 2006 World Cup, increased United States television broadcasts of the English Premier League, and in 2007, David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy. Love him, or hate him, having a name like Beckham, still in his playing prime come to the MLS, it gave the league the thing it most lacked. Respect. In other words, it got players in Europe saying, "if Becks can play in the MLS, maybe I can too". Since then, some of the greatest players in the world, some still at the tail end of their primes, including Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Wayne Rooney have come to the MLS.
Otherwise, the most important thing that has changed is the Americans have been able to move on from the attitude that they can only appreciate sports that the U.S. is dominant at. This attitude was propagated in the 1980's and 1990's by such practices as networks airing only the Olympic events that Americans medaled in, on prime time television. In other words, it was a lot easier for American's to embrace watching something like the 1992 Olympic basketball team win every game by 50 points than it is to watch an event like the World Cup, where in some years the USMNT doesn't qualify. Luckily for those folks, the U.S. Women's Team has done its fair share of domination since the late 90's, which is another factor in the sport's growing popularity that can't be overlooked. However, it is overwhelming the acceptance that not everything has to be quite so American, that has allowed the game to be more embraced by the mainstream here. Little things like the MLS going away from a clock that counts down like in traditional American sports, to a clock that counts up as is traditional in association football shows that slowly but surely, Americans are getting it. That being said, it is hard to imagine the sport ascending to a level of popularity that would rival basketball or American football without the USMNT at least being contenders to win the World Cup.
The Growth Of The Grass Roots Game In America
Finally, we come to the present state of the game in the United States, and there is a lot to be encouraged about, but we are still miles away from the MLS being anything more than a distant 5th most popular professional league over here. Realistically, for that top tier to reach the level of popularity experienced by European leagues, or even those in South America and Mexico, the growth is going to need to come from the bottom up. A large percentage of people who are MLS fans are either first or second generation Americans who have brought their love from overseas. The key is growing the demographic of people who are fans of traditional American sports, and growing their interest in association football. The good news is that we are finally starting to see a legitimate 2nd and 3rd tier below the MLS for the first time, and the success of these leagues is essential long term.
Over the past 5 years, the proliferation of the USL (8), has brought a professional level of soccer to markets like my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. Ultimately, I feel it is these markets, and especially those like Albuquerque, New Mexico El Paso, Texas, and even Greenville, South Carolina that do not have other pro sports competition, will determine if the United States is ever a full fledged "footballing nation". It is my theory that in most European countries (certainly in England at least) all of the best athletes become footballers. For the time being at least, almost all of the best athletes in the United States end up playing, you guessed it, basketball. That however, becomes a chicken or egg scenario because then it becomes a questions of to win the men's World Cup the United States will have to first be a true footballing nation, or to become a true footballing nation will the United States have to first win a men's World Cup. That's why in my opinion the markets I mentioned above that do not have a professional basketball (or even football or hockey) presence could be the key. If soccer can become the most popular sport in at least some U.S. cities, then it could shift the path of talented athletes in those areas away from basketball and other sports, and towards soccer. The countries that have the most successful National Teams, also have the best youth and development systems, and a clear cut tiered pyramid system, and this is what we are starting to see here. In other words, the game has a long way to go here, but today is probably the brightest outlook for soccer in the U.S since that 3rd place finish back 1930.
- I will be referring specifically to U.S. Americans when using this term going forward in the piece, while also recognizing that the term Americans is actually inclusive of all residents of the North and South American continents.
- Germany is the one outlier, but a quick Google search will find you hundreds of articles about how German's are particularly snow tolerant, so there is that.
- At this time the World Cup was a 16 team single elimination tournament. The United States had the bad luck of not only drawing the eventual champion Italians in the 1st round, but also having to play the game in Rome. That being said, the 7-1 spread was not only by far Italy's biggest margin of victory, but the largest margin of victory in any game in that tournament. Also, the entire tournament was played in Italy, so there was no greater advantage in that game in comparison to other matches from that year. On the flip side of things, at that time were one of only 3 teams that qualified from "the Americas", along with Brazil and Argentina.
- Notable exceptions: French wine, Italian suits, Polish Kielbasa, Cuban cigars, and Swiss bank accounts.
- Soccer is boring, it's too low scoring, soccer sucks American football is better, a tie is like kissing your sister, etc., etc., etc.....
- It was a stipulation from FIFA that the U.S. had to have a top tier professional league in operation in order to qualify to hold the World Cup, and thus the MLS was created.
- It got no respect.
- 2nd/3rd/4th tier leagues.