Column: A Messi debate

As the United States soccer team battled in the World Cup, a different war was being waged in the American media.

As the United States soccer team battled in the World Cup, a different war was being waged in the American media.

I was as sad as anyone this month when the United States Men’s National Team’s chance at World Cup glory was dashed at the hands of the dastardly Belgians. It was a fun ride, but all good things must come to an end and this just didn’t happen to be America’s year, despite some promising signs from the U.S. side.

Although I’m somewhat heartbroken at the United States’ exit in the knockout round, one thing I won’t be sorry to see go will be the back-and-forth between soccer’s detractors and American fans who proclaim this year’s World Cup showing is proof that soccer is ready to catch on big time here in the States.

Over the past few weeks, the debate about soccer’s relevance in America has taken the shape of a political feud; kind of like discourse about global warming, only with more vitriol.

Make no mistake about it, despite soccer fever gripping the nation—or perhaps because of it—the anti-futbolers were out in full force this World Cup. But it wasn’t just Dino in Piscataway calling WFAN to gripe about the rampant dives and flops on the pitch—something that would never happen in more “manly” endeavors like football and basketball; nationally syndicated pundits also got in on the act.

Dan Shaughnessy, the famously curmudgeonly Boston Globe writer, dusted off the exact same column he’s been writing about soccer’s lack of excitement for the last 30 years, plugged in a couple of modern references and unleashed his own exercise in tedium for our nation’s sports fans once again.

Fox News contributor Ann Coulter pulled off an exquisite troll job of her own, linking a rise in soccer fandom to the lax immigration policies of the left, stating “No American whose great grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

While Coulter’s piece raised howls among the soccer community, there were a surprising number of traditional “American” sports fans who agreed vociferously with her take on the—presumably Communist—hordes of foreigners who would use soccer’s rising popularity to chip away at the very foundations of our country.

But the other side is just as bad.

America’s “success” at this year’s Cup—if one can call a 1-2-1 record a success—had rabid soccer fans proclaiming this was the year soccer would finally take “the leap” in the states, surpassing baseball, basketball and hockey to become one of the major draws in our sports landscape.

In reality, it’s just another verse of the same song they’ve been singing for the past 30 years.

Although the U.S. run certainly piqued the interest of the nation, undoubtedly introducing more fans to the sport, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to translate into an overnight ratings bonanza for MLS—or even NBC’s English Premier League programming. The fact is, as long as MLS remains miles behind the top leagues in the world, and as long as the United States isn’t producing elite talent at the younger levels, this boom of soccer fandom will be short-lived, and America’s passion for the sport will wane until the World Cup in Qatar in four years’ time.

Which isn’t to say the whole thing was a total loss.

Soccer can capitalize on its momentum right now by attracting even more talent at the youth levels, something that will help our national program—and, more importantly, MLS—years down the road.

It won’t be an overnight transformation, and unless the NFL outlaws the forward pass, it seems unlikely that the beautiful game will supplant our football as king of the hill in my lifetime.

But I enjoyed watching the World Cup this summer, and I hope that it can help to mainstream soccer into the American consciousness in years to come. It’s a wonderful, yet sometimes maddening game, and there’s more than enough room for it here in the states. If the sport can continue to grow, one can hope that, by the time the next World Cup rolls around, the U.S. will once again find itself in position to tangle with the best clubs in the world and support for our national team will lay to rest many of the debates surrounding soccer’s viability in our country.

It’s one debate that needs to be kicked to the curb as soon as possible.

 

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or sports@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.