Last weekend I was in Denver, sitting in the left-field bleachers at Coors Field, when I realized that I don’t need to defend American soccer any more.
In the row behind my group, there was a man with his family, including a child about 8 or 9 years old. The man had an awful lot to say about soccer, none of it good, and most of it not printable. Suffice to say that he thought that soccer was not only boring and hopeless but un-American, and he was determined to impress this on his young charge.
He’s not exactly alone in this. We’ve yet to go a single World Cup summer without at least one well-respected media outlet publishing an article with a title like “Here’s why soccer will never catch on in America.” You can still find those who insist that America will never fully embrace soccer.
It wasn’t that long ago that those people had facts on their side, too. As late as 2004, MLS had just 10 teams and no national TV contract. Games from Europe were heavily restricted. I can distinctly remember in 2005 having to pay $20 for a pay-per-view broadcast of a Manchester United-Arsenal matchup, one of the 10 biggest games in the world that year.
It’s almost unbelievable, then, to see how the game has exploded here. Just this summer, every game of the European Championship and all but a handful of Copa America Centenario games were available on basic cable. Some of the Copa America games were on over-the-air TV. MLS has 20 teams and four upcoming expansion teams, and is already searching for markets for four more squads. Every single game of the Premier League is broadcast in America. Even Minnesota United, in the second division, has all of its games shown on TV.
Soccer has made it in America — not because it was foisted on the masses but because people demanded it. Virtually every city has a team in one of the burgeoning leagues, whether MLS or the lower divisions. Fans with cable willing to invest the same amount of money as NFL Sunday Ticket customers can choose from hundreds of games in dozens of leagues every weekend. Anywhere in America, there are more hours of televised soccer than you could possibly watch, and more local games than you could possibly attend.
There was a time that I would have been compelled to argue with the man in the Coors Field bleachers. Not so long ago, to be a soccer fan in the U.S. felt like being part of an underground political movement, a band of progressives who were just as concerned with promoting the cause of soccer as they were with the game itself. Now, soccer fans don’t have to argue with the soccer-haters in the bleachers. The disagreements live on, but with the way things have developed, there’s no reason to argue any more.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• The U.S. women’s national team began its Olympic camp Friday, strangely, on the same holiday weekend that a full slate of NWSL games was scheduled. The NWSL is funded by U.S. Soccer, so it’s probably only fair that the league can take players for national team duty whenever coach Jill Ellis wants. But for those who watch and follow the league, it becomes hard to take the NWSL seriously when it’s treated like a minor league for training players for the national team.
• Many criticized the Copa America Centenario, calling it meaningless. The excitement was palpable, though. Seeing the joy among the Chileans at their repeat title, or the anguish of the Argentines after losing on penalties for the second consecutive year, should convince anyone of that.
• Following Argentina’s latest loss, its third in a major tournament final in three years, Lionel Messi (above) announced he would retire from the national team. Some have suggested, though, that his departure is more because of organizational problems with the Argentine governing body and frustration over the loss, and that Messi might reconsider before the 2018 World Cup.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Euro: Italy vs. Germany, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2. Everyone discounted Italy’s chances before this tournament. What we missed, though, is the sheer stubbornness of the Italian defense, which has allowed just one goal, and it came in a game in which Italy rested most of its starters. The Italians’ matchup with powerhouse Germany should be an all-time classic quarterfinal.
MLS: New York at New York City, 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPN. The crosstown matchup between the Harrison, N.J.-based Red Bulls and the Bronx-based NYC FC has become a contentious one already. The Red Bulls’ historic 7-0 drubbing of NYC earlier this season just added a little more zip. Expect plenty of insults, hopefully in the form of banners and not fights.
Euro: France vs. Iceland, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Iceland’s 2-1 victory over England in the knockout round was the game of the tournament so far, as the plucky upstarts from the tiny island nation knocked out the aimless English squad. Since qualifying started, Iceland has surprised everyone by not being awful. Could it possibly repeat its previous feats against unstoppable France?
MLS: Columbus at Kansas City, 6 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Both the Crew and Sporting KC were supposed to be excellent this year, challenging for the top spot in the standings. Instead, Columbus is in ninth and KC in seventh. The Crew has won just one of its past eight league matches; KC has won just two of its past 14. Both teams badly need a victory to try to get untracked.