Asking whether the United States is now a “soccer nation,” which has become a timely if peculiar fascination during the excitement of the World Cup, is like asking if the U.S. is a “broccoli nation.”
Soccer is consumed here regularly; fervidly by some, occasionally by others, and not at all by those who simply don’t care for it. For the most part in this country — with the notable exception of the NFL — that’s no different from any other sport.
The United States has many basketball fans and hockey fans, but none of them feel it necessary to hear that this is a “basketball nation” or “hockey nation.” The most passionate soccer fans crave that affirmation, however, and perhaps you can’t blame them after enduring all these decades of second-class status.
It is that neediness that bothers non-soccer fans, though, and leads them to say stupid things about soccer’s less-appealing facets — the petty fakery of players trying to draw a foul call is a particular target — while choosing to ignore the ball-handling artistry or the exquisite tension of a close, important match.
The real truth about soccer’s place in the pecking order of sports in the United States is that it won’t change much no matter how deeply the national team, which plays a round-of-16 match Tuesday afternoon against Belgium, might advance in the World Cup.
So far, the television ratings have been excellent, but they were great for the Women’s World Cup in 1999, too, the tournament that heralded the apparent arrival of women’s soccer in this country. All the attempts at domestic professional leagues that were borne of that arrival have failed, however.
It could be that casual consumers of soccer in the United States enjoy a spectacle, a major tournament, in the same way that the quadrennial consumers of some Olympic sports would never watch them on a daily basis.
Major League Soccer, the men’s league that was organized after the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, has shown better legs than that, though, and has settled into a solid niche. The league attracts decent crowds to mostly soccer-specific stadiums but doesn’t do very well on television.
The World Cup, especially if the United States could advance another round — or even two! — is good for the reputation of the MLS, which has 10 players on the 23-man roster and had seven among the starting lineup for the team’s final group match against Germany. That might not turn the large cadre of soccer “purists” in this country who watch only foreign leagues into ticket-buyers, but it is an improvement from 2010 when only four MLS players were selected.
The team squares off with its history on Tuesday afternoon. A win over Belgium, which is gimpy and a bit patchwork at the defensive end of the field, is not an impossible task and would move the United States into the quarterfinals, which it has reached only once in the modern annals of the tournament. Another win, likely having to come against Argentina, would lift the United States into very thin air indeed. And the ratings wouldn’t be bad, either.
But that’s rushing things, which soccer fans like to do. The matches will arrive when they are scheduled, just as the sport will itself. In fact, it’s already here, consumed and enjoyed and vibrant and growing.
It just doesn’t matter if everyone doesn’t like broccoli yet.