Professional soccer in the United States looks a lot like the nation’s other major pro sports, with one major league orbited by minor leagues that function as developmental feeder programs. Instead of modeling itself after pro sports, perhaps soccer should have instead followed the lead of college football, America’s most popular by overall attendance. The college football season begins in earnest this weekend. American soccer should try to learn two specific lessons from the schools on the gridiron.
Every week in the fall, a shade under four million people will attend college football games in America. Fan passion at those games, from big schools to tiny ones, tends to dwarf that of any other American sport. Soccer bigwigs will tell you that fans want to watch amazing TV broadcasts of the best players in the best stadiums. Yet this can’t come close to explaining why only a few American soccer games this season will exceed the football passions on both sides of the field at Clemens Stadium in Collegeville, where St. John’s and St. Thomas renew their MIAC rivalry this year.
The first thing that American soccer can learn is that tradition and history matter far more than marketing and hype. The reason the best American rivalry is Seattle against Portland has nothing to do with Major League Soccer touting a Rivalry Week named for a cheap European beer. Portland and Seattle have been playing each other for four decades, long before MLS was a twinkle in U.S. Soccer’s eye.
College football rivalries depend on long history, something you can’t have if teams are folding or moving. MLS has been reasonably good about this; no other American soccer league has ever come close to being stable. Growth will come naturally, but shooting for stability – thus allowing teams to build history and tradition – should be the main focus.
The second thing to learn is that leagues other than MLS need to be something more than feeders. Despite minor-league baseball’s long tradition in America, few fans actually care about the games. They go to the park for a nice day out, or perhaps to see a star player on his way to the big leagues. American soccer is heading this direction, too, as most of the teams in the second-division USL are either owned by an MLS team, or have a strong affiliation with one.
In college football, meanwhile, the conference system of geographically similar schools means that every team has something to play for, even if it’s not the national championship. Soccer, with it single focus on MLS, needs to start figuring out how it can develop teams that have something on the line besides the hope of an MLS contract. This could be a system of promotion and relegation, or college football-style local conferences, or something else entirely.
Context, meaning, history. College football games have these. American soccer still struggles to find them. Keep the teams where they are and give them something to play for, and soccer will have itself on the right track.
• The four playoff spots in the National Women’s Soccer League are all but set. Most of the league isn’t playing this weekend, as the U.S. women’s national team is playing two games against Chile, so the season will wrap up next weekend. North Carolina is the league champion and top seed in the playoffs. Seattle and Portland have clinched playoff berths. Chicago needs just one point in two games to lock up the final spot.
• FIFA President Gianni Infantino was in the United States this week to meet with U.S. Soccer officials and shake hands with President Donald Trump. While he was here, Infantino indicated that he’s not in favor of the planned La Liga games in the United States. It was a reminder that La Liga still needs to get approval from FIFA, CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer, all of which may be too much to ask.
• U.S. men’s national team striker Clint Dempsey abrutly retired last week in the middle of his season with the Seattle Sounders. In some ways, Dempsey was the ideal American player. He had success in Europe, in MLS, and for the national team, all with a no-nonsense take-no-prisoners attitude that exemplified all the things American soccer likes to believe about itself.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Game of the week: Napoli at Sampdoria, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPNNews. Well-traveled manager Carlo Ancelotti has landed in Napoli and has last year’s Italian runners-up playing as if nothing has changed from last year. This will be Sampdoria’s first home match since the tragic bridge collapse in Genoa, no doubt an emotional occasion for the home fans.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org