Most of the club soccer leagues across the world are taking a break this week as men’s international teams play World Cup qualifying matches. Once again, the United States men’s national team has the spotlight in the American soccer world. It’s a reminder that, for many American fans, the national team was their first love and is still their favorite team.
In some ways, the national teams are the best possible teams to follow.
Soccer is almost unique in that club teams and national teams are both immensely popular. Other sports either lack a truly meaningful international competition (football and baseball), are structured to elevate international competition far above club competition (rugby and cricket) or play national team matches so infrequently that the idea of a cohesive “national team” is almost meaningless (basketball and hockey). In soccer, though, club and country share the stage equally.
It hasn’t always been much fun to be a club soccer fan in America. Even when Major League Soccer finally got going in 1996, it was second-rate for years. And if you lived outside a major metropolitan area, you’d hardly ever see a game anyway. If your local team was a lower-division team, it would probably fold within three years. Following a team from the other side of the world meant satellite television and getting all your news from the internet, possibly in a foreign language.
The national teams were an exception to this. The women’s national team has always been a powerhouse, and the men’s national team could hold its own. When the World Cup rolled around, or the Olympics (for the women’s team), American soccer fans got a chance to not be curiosities and oddballs — and to come together to support one team. Even non-soccer fans got behind the national team. Even now, international games are a chance to be part of the whole American soccer community, rather than a fan of a club team.
Even better, cheering for the national squad is a great way to avoid some of the worst parts of soccer.
The players actually feel like they’re on the same side as the fans and the club. Germany isn’t going to come in and drop $100 million for Christian Pulisic. Clint Dempsey isn’t going to hold out for a move to Mexico, or put in a lackluster effort because he’s waiting for his contract to run out. U.S. Soccer isn’t going to dump Tim Howard because his contract doesn’t fit under the salary cap.
All this is the reason that the U.S. national team has become the “entry point” for American soccer fandom. Many of soccer’s die-hard American fans, including me, can trace their fandom back to the 1994 World Cup or the 2002 World Cup or the 2010 World Cup.
Though we’re fans of various club teams, the national team will always be first — and in many ways, the best and easiest team to follow.
• Normally I would treat the announcement of a new American soccer league with an enormous amount of skepticism. The National Independent Soccer Association, though, is the brainchild of co-founder Peter Wilt, thus giving it instant credibility. If there is anyone who can make a lower-division league with promotion and relegation work, it’s Wilt, who I once branded “the American Soccer Gandalf” for his long experience leading myriad lower-division teams on adventures.
• I occasionally mention the UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations, which — in theory — prevent European clubs from spending more money than they make. Given that at least five clubs (AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain) finished the summer transfer window having spent at least $100 million more on players than they sold, though, it’s hard to understand how these regulations are supposed to be creating a level playing field.
• Last year’s French title race, in which Monaco prevailed over free-spending PSG, was a lot of fun. PSG responded by spending $262 million to buy Brazilian star Neymar from Barcelona, and $212 million for teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe,, on loan for a year from Monaco. It’s safe to say the Ligue 1 title race is likely to be less exciting this year.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
UEFA: Italy at Spain, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, FS2. When these two European giants were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group, we knew that these matchups would be key. The group winner automatically qualifies for the World Cup, the second-place team is sent to a nerve-racking playoff. The two are tied for first place in the group.
NWSL: Washington at Portland, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. With victories in six of its past seven games, Portland might be the only squad that can challenge North Carolina this year. The Thorns have midfielder Tobin Heath back on the roster, but the American standout probably isn’t ready to play after missing most of the season with injury.
UEFA: Bulgaria at Netherlands, 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPN2. The Netherlands’ horrific few years rolls on. The Dutch, usually among the best teams in the world, failed to qualify for Euro 2016, and now are in danger of missing out on the World Cup, too. The Netherlands lost 4-0 to France on Thursday, and needs a victory to keep its hope of qualifying alive.
UEFA: Portugal at Hungary, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, FS2. Portugal was expected to win its qualifying group rather easily, given its Cristiano Ronaldo-headlined squad. But a loss to Switzerland has the Portuguese stuck in second place. These two teams played to a 3-3 draw in Euro 2016 last year, which Portugal went on to win.