Will U.S. Soccer Ever Produce a Pele?

Let me get back to you on that, Jake. When I'm done prepping for my fantasy football draft.

Sure. If American kids played sandlot soccer as much as they play basketball, we'd produce more footie stars. But why don't they? All of these ideas about how to make soccer more popular in the US miss the larger question of why the game isn't much beloved in the first place. The larger, if-it-were-a-snake-it-would-have-bit-you problem is that the game is subtly but simply unsuited to American mind, as unsuited as coffee and doughnuts would be to an Englishman, or as bathing is to the French.

The most uniquely American games, baseball and football, are often pilloried for lacking action. Untrue. They just have a distinctly American kind of action—what Fitzgerald called "the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games." Both stop and start. Both feature huge exertions of sudden force, then a pause for reflection and planning, and another burst of force. Think of football's huddle, then clash at the line of scrimmage, or how the pitcher fidgets on the mound before putting every ounce of power into heaving the ball home.

Soccer, however, is nonstop. It flows. Endurance is a huge part of success, and endurance sports just aren't our thing. That's why a high school cross-country runner doesn't get as many dates as the quarterback, and it's also why Lance Armstrong—for all his star power—didn't inspire millions of American kids to hop on the ten-speed.

True story: A friend in the Israeli consulate once asked my opinion on why soccer isn't that big here. When I shared this theory—that Americans prefer games with quick, decisive bursts of action over those of finesse and endurance—he laughed, "Just like your foreign policy!"

Ouch. Good point.

Particularly odd is the idea that soccer can be grafted onto our sports' culture via Latin American immigrant communities. That's not how this wondrous country of ours works. All those waves of European immigrants in the 20th century? They knew about footie in the old country. But once in this one, quite naturally, they and their children adopted the games most suited to, and best reflective of, our values and way of life.

Please know that I'm not hating on soccer. Not at all. Love the game. My city just built a ridiculously sweet soccer-only complex, Livestrong Sporting Park. Seeing games there is world-class fun, be it the MLS or Gold Cup. But the sport isn't my favorite, and it never will be, no more than this Kansas City boy will ever like listening to Beethoven and Bach more than Big Joe Turner and the Bird. Is there a great American soccer star waiting to be born? Yup. Will this nation ever win a World Cup? Sure. So what? America may produce better opera singers than Italy, too. We're just that good. But that doesn't mean that opera here will ever be as beloved as our native rock and roll.

–Hampton

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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