Note: This post is one that I originally wrote for Culture of Soccer. Given how relevant it is to XI, it seemed worthwhile to repost it here. It was originally written in 2009. Does it still hold up? Are there American soccer cultures I missed? Does the idea of breaking the soccersphere into separate cultures even make sense when so many people fit into so many of the different cultures? How, then, is it best to discuss the diversity of experience that exist within American soccer? These are the types of questions that XI will be exploring. Please help XI get off the ground by supporting the magazine on Kickstarter.
What is American soccer culture? Ask that question to 100 people and you may very well receive 100 different responses. People’s perception of American soccer culture depends entirely on where they are coming from. Soccer moms, for instance, have very different perceptions of soccer culture in this country than do immigrants recently arrived here. Yet despite the obvious level of diversity among Americans involved with the sport, many observers ignore this variety and attempt to make proclamations about a single monolithic entity called “American soccer culture.”
Within anthropology (the discipline in which I am doing my PhD), and indeed through the social sciences, there has been an emphasis in recent years to get away from previous modes of inquiry whose basic thrust was to figure out “the culture” in some society. This earlier emphasis on figuring the single cultural system led anthropologists to ignore the diversity within cultures. Today, anthropological writing is replete with assertions of heterogeneity in what would have previously been assumed to be homogenous cultures (often so much so that the reader is left to wonder if there are any cultural rules at all).
I have done much thinking about what American soccer culture is, and the main realization I have come to is that there is no such thing. Instead of talking about American soccer culture, we are better served to look at the diversity that exists among those who are involved in the game in the United States. There is no single American soccer culture, but there are many American soccer cultures.
What follows is my initial attempt to think about the various American soccer cultures that exist. I present this list with the disclaimer that: 1) it is just a beginning and I don’t claim to cover every single American soccer culture that exists, 2) many people fit in more than one culture, although the separate nature of some cultures leads to the impression – false, I believe – that soccer is not popular in the United States. If you have other ideas for American soccer cultures, please leave a comment!
When many people think about American soccer, the first culture that comes to mind is the game that kids in the suburbs play. Drive around nearly any suburb in the United States and you are likely to encounter fields full of children playing soccer. Soccer is one of the most played sports among children in this country, and the US has the most registered youth players of any country in the world. And who can forget the archetypal soccer mom?
The professional game
Most people are focused on MLS these days, with Real Salt Lake having just won the title. 15 teams makes up MLS, though 3 more will join the league in the next two years, with more expected to follow them. The league has made steady progress since its inception in 1996, growing to a level of prominence on the American sports scene many never thought possible. The league’s success in recent years has come as it has switched away from Americanizing the sport by gimmicks such as hockey style shootouts to settle ties and embraced a more traditional brand of soccer. Although the league’s popularity is still well behind that of professional baseball, basketball, and American football, MLS is growing steadily and will likely continue to do so. (he newly announced “competition” for MLS – the name-appropriating NASL – will likely go the way of so many other professional leagues in the US (see, for example, this article on failed American football leagues) that have tried to compete with their more established competition: nowhere.
For years, college soccer was looked down on by those who saw it as less than serious preparation for the professional game. But in recent years, the college game has produced more and more players who have been successful in MLS and abroad (e.g. Maurice Edu and Charlie Davies). College soccer does not attract the rabid following of college basketball and American football, but under the radar, some teams have begun to attract decent crowds (Maryland is known for having good atmosphere at its games and Akron’s coaching recently boasted about the 2700 fans who attended their game against South Florida). College soccer may still not be the preferred option for those on the fast track to stardom, but it does provide a viable option for many young and talented players.
Despite the growth of MLS, there is a significant group of American soccer fans who care not one iota about the domestic league. But ask these fans about goings-on in England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, etc and they can give you the latest standings, top scorers, and upcoming games in each league. Referred to disdainfully as “Euro snobs” (I am not sure how they, presumably less disdainfully, refer to themselves), they insist they are only interested in truly top-level soccer no matter where it is played.
Many Euro snobs come from Sarah Palin’s favorite group: the “liberal elite.” Their cosmopolitanism extends from their media preferences (National Public Radio, the New York Times) to their food choices (local and organic or imported and exotic), and into their sports viewing habits (soccer). In his book How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer writes, “I’ve been around enough of America’s soccer cognoscenti to know that they invite abuse. They are inveterate snobs, so snobbish, in fact, that they think nothing of turning against their comrades. According to their sneering critique, their fellow fans are dilettantes without any real understanding of the game; they are yuppies who admire soccer like a fine slab of imported goat cheese; they come from neighborhoods with spectacularly high Starbucks-per-capita” (246).
Discussions of American soccer often fail to include one of the largest segments of American soccer fans: immigrants. Even excluding the groups I’ve mentioned so far, the number of immigrants who are involved in soccer is huge. Television ratings for any game involving Mexican soccer (the league or national team) are huge on Spanish-language channels. GolTV has also made a point of showing Latin American leagues with large audiences of US-based immigrants. And these are just television channels catering to newer immigrants. There are also many immigrants throughout the country who have formed soccer clubs and leagues that continue to attract much interest, albeit relatively local. Take a look at the names of the teams that make up the National Soccer League in Chicago, for instance, and you will get a sense of the immigrant groups that have come to the Windy City over the years.
A video of FK Republika Srpska in Chicago’s National Soccer League
One soccer culture that is stronger in the US than in many other countries is the women’s game. Although the days of US dominance at the national team level are long gone, the US team continues to be among the world’s best. More significantly in terms of numbers are the many girls who play the game. Weekends on suburban soccer fields often bring equal numbers of female and male players. Title IX has helped women’s college soccer programs to boom. While the fate of the newly reconstituted professional soccer league, the WPS, is not clear, it is certain that women’s soccer will be one of many American soccer cultures for years to come.
The Internet has changed the world in many ways, and soccer is no exception. For American fans, the Internet has enabled a connection to soccer around the world in ways that were impossible previously (as a child, I remember sorting through newspapers for European results days after games were played). The proliferation of websites has made it as easy to follow soccer from Los Angeles as from London. There is now also a thriving community of websites focused on American soccer as well. The Internet is today, of course, where anyone with an offbeat passion finds a community, but American soccer fans perhaps appreciate it even more because of the years we spent unable to get any information (see, for example, this interview by Adam Spangler of This is American Soccer with Bruce McGuire of DuNord). The Internet has enabled Americans to truly enter the worldwide community of soccer fans.
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What becomes clear when we break down American soccer culture into American soccer cultures is that soccer very much does have a passionate following in the United States, albeit one that is quite fractured. I chuckle to myself when people insist that “Americans don’t like soccer.” It is just not true. In many ways, it is not a question of when soccer will “make it” in the US; rather, soccer already has made it in this country, but we can only see this is we acknowledge the diversity of the many American soccer cultures that exist.