I grew up playing soccer but I didn’t become a spectator of the sport until 1994 when the USA hosted the World Cup. That particular tournament was a huge success largely because, unlike most host countries, we already had dozens of huge stadiums all over the place (as in, we didn’t have to build any new ones to prepare for the tournament), a jillion hotels for tourists, awesome infrastructure, lots of major cities and 250 million (bi-)curious Americans that filled up the stadiums when the tourist fans didn’t. Ever since that tournament I’ve been a fan of soccer and specifically the USA national (men’s) team. When our big pro league, Major League Soccer, started in 1996 I was really into it. It was kinda big but still not in the mainstream. “I hope it’s as big as the NFL someday!” I said, with a lisp and several other speech impediments.
I paid close attention to the World Cup qualifying tournaments, biting my fingernails off wondering if the USA would qualify. It was kind of tight in 1998, not so tight in 2002, and a walkover in 2006. With each World Cup cycle soccer has received more and more coverage in US sports news and the national team has come to dominate the North American/Central American/Caribbean region. Just five years ago I died of happiness when United States beat El Salvador 4-0 in meaningless friendlies (aka exhibitions) but now I have trouble caring when USA beats semi-mighty Mexico in World Cup qualifying.
All the while soccer gets more coverage in US sports media. The contract battle between LA Galaxy and AC Milan over David Beckham was a favorite topic on sportsillustrated.com and espn.com last month. European Champions League results are regularly reported on. The European Championship was heavily covered by ESPN last year. MLS games don’t get a lot of coverage but USA national team games do. All of this to my surprising DISMAY.
It turns out maybe I can only REALLY care about a team or sport if it’s on the outside and if it’s an underdog. That’s hard to admit because it’s so dumb but it must be true. USA soccer is no longer the underdog in many of their games. If they were to win the World Cup that would be an incredible thing but constantly beating up Jamaica and Guatemala isn’t that thrilling anymore. I should have seen it coming in the late 90s when the USA women won the Women’s World Cup. Until that time I’d supported that team to some extent but the media reaction to their win really turned me off. At the time I thought I was just annoyed because the reaction was completely off-kilter (in 1999 there were only 3 quality women’s national soccer teams unlike today when there are several). The US media acted like winning the Women’s World Cup (on home soil, no less) was the next Miracle On Ice but it was much more akin to the Yankees beating the Braves in the World Series – not that extraordinary, a quality matchup but an expected one with no surprise results possible.
I still love the sport of soccer but from now on I will cheer for the little guys. I think I’m actually choosing Trinidad & Tobago to be my favorite national team. They only have ONE MILLION people but they still have several stars in the English Premier League and Championship. I like their talent and gumption. I want them to beat USA and Mexico. I want them to win everything so I can no longer like them.
As for USA sports, I’m now turning my attention to the non-famous USA Eagles national rugby team but I might be too late. ESPN Classic started showing some Eagles games live last year. I guess the next step is we host the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and then by 2034 rugby will be semi-mainstream here. Wah! At least I’ll be 54 by then and probably dead.