Why Americans Don't Like Soccer

Despite decades of strenuous efforts to promote soccer to American youth and sports fans, and despite the phenomenal success of the American women's soccer team in international competition, soccer remains the neglected stepchild of the American sports scene.  Indeed, when the American men's team was bounced in the first round of the World Cup this week, the response from the nation at large was a great big yawn.  Compare this to the black cloud that descended over the country when the American men's basketball team failed to win the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.


So why don't Americans like soccer?  There appear to be two basic explanations.  The first is that the "marketplace" for sports in this country already is filled with baseball, football, basketball, and (to a much lesser degree) hockey, leaving no room for soccer to grow in popularity.  As Michael Mandelbaum —— author of The Meaning of Sport ——
wrote in The Observer (UK) in 2004: 

"the cultural, economic, and psychological space available for sport is limited and that space is already taken." 

This theory was seconded earlier this month by Andrei Markovits, the Boston Globe's soccer correspondent, who wrote

"America filled its own sports space with three games (plus the Canadian import of ice hockey... ) thus 'crowding out' soccer's chances of becoming part of America's sports culture."

I'm not convinced.  Marketplaces are inherently dynamic.  If soccer were a worthy object of the American sports fan's interest, then it would enjoy greater popularity.  But it doesn't.  Which brings me to the second common explanation for its lack of popularity: soccer is boring.  As a blogger vividly explained  only a few days ago:

The first round [of this year's World Cup] isn't even over yet, and there have already been five 0—0 draws. Five matches in which nobody scored. In the Argentina—Netherlands match, there were a total of six shots on goal in the match (three a side). For those keeping score at home, that's one shot on goal every fifteen minutes (and that's only if you ignore 'stoppage time'). There were nineteen total shots taken, if you include the thirteen that weren't on goal. So barely over one shot every five minutes, on average. When Americans complain that 'nothing happens' in a soccer match, this is exactly what we're talking about.


While I'm on this rant, there were six 1—0 matches, three 1:1 draws (nine total draws), and fourteen other shutouts (twenty total shutouts if you count the 1—0 matches). So out of forty matches played, in 25 of them, at least one team failed to score at all. That's a staggering 62.5%! (By way of comparison, there were fifteen baseball games today, and two of them were shutouts; in all but 13.3% of the games, fans of either team had at least something to cheer for; and baseball isn't exactly known for being the most exciting sport in the world...)

In my opinion, a lack of scoring is not merely an incidental aspect of the game of soccer —— it is its essence.  That is, the ultimate purpose of soccer is to engage in lots of furious activity to accomplish  . . . absolutely nothing.  Not surprisingly, when that elusive goal is scored (if it is scored), ear—shattering howls of euphoria erupt from players, announcers, and spectators alike, as if their very souls were being released from the depths of hell.

Goals are indeed a rare commodity in soccer, so much so that soccer is, essentially, a zero sum game.  The "pie" of goals not only is meager, it never grows.  So it is fought over with an intensity that is almost never found in American sports.  This isn't boring, but it is deeply unsatisfying to Americans.


My theory is that Americans have neither the belief system nor the temperment for such a sisyphean sport as soccer.  We are a society of doers, achievers, and builders.  Our country is dynamic, constantly growing, and becoming ever bigger, richer, and stronger.  We do not subscribe to a "zero sum" mentality.  We do not labor for the sake of laboring.  And we like our sports teams to score.  Scoring is a tangible accomplishment that can be identified, quantified, tabulated, compared, analyzed, and, above all else, increased.  This is the American way.


That soccer may be "the most popular sport in the world" speaks volumes —— but not about America's lack of sporting knowledge or sophistication, as soccer aficionados like to argue.  Rather, I think it reflects the static, crimped, and defeatest attitudes held by so many of the other peoples on earth.


The day that soccer becomes one of the most popular sports in the United States is the day that American exceptionalism diminishes in our souls.

Update: A dissent from Europe.


Steven M. Warshawsky
is a regular contributor.

Despite decades of strenuous efforts to promote soccer to American youth and sports fans, and despite the phenomenal success of the American women's soccer team in international competition, soccer remains the neglected stepchild of the American sports scene.  Indeed, when the American men's team was bounced in the first round of the World Cup this week, the response from the nation at large was a great big yawn.  Compare this to the black cloud that descended over the country when the American men's basketball team failed to win the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.


So why don't Americans like soccer?  There appear to be two basic explanations.  The first is that the "marketplace" for sports in this country already is filled with baseball, football, basketball, and (to a much lesser degree) hockey, leaving no room for soccer to grow in popularity.  As Michael Mandelbaum —— author of The Meaning of Sport ——
wrote in The Observer (UK) in 2004: 

"the cultural, economic, and psychological space available for sport is limited and that space is already taken." 

This theory was seconded earlier this month by Andrei Markovits, the Boston Globe's soccer correspondent, who wrote

"America filled its own sports space with three games (plus the Canadian import of ice hockey... ) thus 'crowding out' soccer's chances of becoming part of America's sports culture."

I'm not convinced.  Marketplaces are inherently dynamic.  If soccer were a worthy object of the American sports fan's interest, then it would enjoy greater popularity.  But it doesn't.  Which brings me to the second common explanation for its lack of popularity: soccer is boring.  As a blogger vividly explained  only a few days ago:

The first round [of this year's World Cup] isn't even over yet, and there have already been five 0—0 draws. Five matches in which nobody scored. In the Argentina—Netherlands match, there were a total of six shots on goal in the match (three a side). For those keeping score at home, that's one shot on goal every fifteen minutes (and that's only if you ignore 'stoppage time'). There were nineteen total shots taken, if you include the thirteen that weren't on goal. So barely over one shot every five minutes, on average. When Americans complain that 'nothing happens' in a soccer match, this is exactly what we're talking about.


While I'm on this rant, there were six 1—0 matches, three 1:1 draws (nine total draws), and fourteen other shutouts (twenty total shutouts if you count the 1—0 matches). So out of forty matches played, in 25 of them, at least one team failed to score at all. That's a staggering 62.5%! (By way of comparison, there were fifteen baseball games today, and two of them were shutouts; in all but 13.3% of the games, fans of either team had at least something to cheer for; and baseball isn't exactly known for being the most exciting sport in the world...)

In my opinion, a lack of scoring is not merely an incidental aspect of the game of soccer —— it is its essence.  That is, the ultimate purpose of soccer is to engage in lots of furious activity to accomplish  . . . absolutely nothing.  Not surprisingly, when that elusive goal is scored (if it is scored), ear—shattering howls of euphoria erupt from players, announcers, and spectators alike, as if their very souls were being released from the depths of hell.

Goals are indeed a rare commodity in soccer, so much so that soccer is, essentially, a zero sum game.  The "pie" of goals not only is meager, it never grows.  So it is fought over with an intensity that is almost never found in American sports.  This isn't boring, but it is deeply unsatisfying to Americans.


My theory is that Americans have neither the belief system nor the temperment for such a sisyphean sport as soccer.  We are a society of doers, achievers, and builders.  Our country is dynamic, constantly growing, and becoming ever bigger, richer, and stronger.  We do not subscribe to a "zero sum" mentality.  We do not labor for the sake of laboring.  And we like our sports teams to score.  Scoring is a tangible accomplishment that can be identified, quantified, tabulated, compared, analyzed, and, above all else, increased.  This is the American way.


That soccer may be "the most popular sport in the world" speaks volumes —— but not about America's lack of sporting knowledge or sophistication, as soccer aficionados like to argue.  Rather, I think it reflects the static, crimped, and defeatest attitudes held by so many of the other peoples on earth.


The day that soccer becomes one of the most popular sports in the United States is the day that American exceptionalism diminishes in our souls.

Update: A dissent from Europe.


Steven M. Warshawsky
is a regular contributor.