American Soccer is All Grown Up

Being a kid in the 80s, liking soccer was about the same as liking Marmite on toast. It just didn’t compute for most my friends. They didn’t know what it was, so they assumed they hated it.

I wasn’t soccer obsessed, per se, but how could I be? There was no Internet, no FIFA 14 on the iPod, no English Premier League games to watch. Once every four years or so I could catch a few games on TV (Valderrama’s hair, y’all–it’s burned into my psyche), but my education in the game came almost exclusively from my British father. The majority of my earliest memories center on the game, actually. He was teaching me how to keep my legs together on rolling balls as a keeper. Or thigh traps in the front yard. Or he was pointing out how smart foreign fans were when they would actually boo their team for making a bad play. I remember what the click of the play knob on the 1970s-era filmstrip movie projector sounded like as he rewound game footage over and over for the high schoolers at the soccer camp where he was coaching. Little me was sitting in the back of the dark room and gaining a life skill.

Even into the 90s, the U.S. played only away games. I mean, they were played on American soil, but at pretty much every game the U.S. fans were so outnumbered they might’ve been in the capital city of whatever country we were playing against. I remember hearing that U.S. Soccer would intentionally schedule games where the opposing country had a hotbed of immigrants, to ensure that attendance reached at least break-even levels.

Then 1994 happened. The World Cup was here. In the United States. I remember the first time I saw a soccer player on David Letterman. That was rad in ways that defy explanation. It was Alexi Lalas, who got his famous, red beard trimmed by Dave. Surely that would win some of the cool kids over, I thought, incorrectly.

Then we had a league. Major League Soccer. With actual Americans in it. The U.S. women won a World Cup in there. Brandi Chastain was on Sports Illustrated. THEN DAVID BECKHAM CAME. If anyone can make soccer cool, it’s Goldenballs. Right?

But in 2006, the National Team came to Nashville to Morocco. There was a small group of vocal supporters (known as “Sam’s Army” back then,) but the rest of the crowd was curious soccer moms and Vandy frat dudes who were more likely to ask, “What’s offsides again?” than to be debating nuances of 4-4-2 vs. 4-5-1 formations. The cool kids still just didn’t get it.

Last Friday, though, the U.S. men broke the attendance record for a soccer game in Nashville, with 44,835 ‘Merican Tennesseans showing up. This wasn’t a tournament game, just a warm-up for the Gold Cup, which started last night. It didn’t mean anything. But the crowd showed up despite a serious threat of rain. It wasn’t just game night that folks came out either. The night before the game, hundreds of jersey-clad, USA-chanting soccer fans showed up at a local Irish pub for a “day-before party.” Some of them looked suspiciously like Vandy kids.

On Sunday, the U.S. women beat the world at their own game, bringing home their third World Cup trophy. They’ve been (or will be) on every talk show that matters. Fox was expecting 19 million viewers. They got 25 million. That’s the highest rated soccer game in the country ever, by far. It’s also more than every game of the NBA Finals, which was the highest-rated Finals since the Jordan era. Game 6 got 20 million viewers. The women also beat every World Series game’s average viewers since all the way back to 2004 by at least 5 million.

But my favorite thing to watch as soccer has grown has nothing to do with numbers. Tuesday night, the U.S. men beat Honduras 2-1 in their first Gold Cup game. The stands were packed with American supporters, chanting for 90 minutes–red, white and blue all over. In the 80th minute, up by one goal, Ventura Alvarado received a pass from a midfielder. One Honduran forward was pressuring, but only slightly. Instead of passing to an open Michael Bradley in the middle of the field, he turned and played the ball all the way back to goalkeeper Brad Guzan. The boos were unmistakable. It wasn’t isolated–this was a real, genuine display of systemic displeasure over a tiny, subtle nuance of the sport that I’ve loved in a bubble for a couple decades. It was like Packers fans booing Mike McCarthy because he went with a nickel defense package when we all know the Patriots are gonna run. Or Red Sox fans booing because the ump didn’t call a Sabathia balk.

Last Friday in Nashville, soccer moms cheered for subtle defensive plays, and the Vandy frat dudes were starting chants from the 50-yard line that 2006’s Sam’s Army soldiers would’ve been proud of. The American soccer IQ, even in good ol’ boy SEC country middle America is rising.

Soccer’s global, exciting, fluid, and fast. It’s the most ‘Merican sport there is, actually. And the people who still hate it today are the same 85 percenters who complained for years about the Facepages, and music is terrible these days, and get off my lawn, and where’s the remote, and why are there so many beers what’s wrong with Budweiser and Coors? And anyone who still complains about soccer players taking a dive clearly hasn’t watched an NBA game in the last half decade, where there are more flops per minute than my Tuesday night men’s league games.

After the Nashville game I asked U.S. captain Michael Bradley what he thought of the crowd. “We talked all week about what it’s like to play here,” he said. “We’ve had good experiences here before, and tonight certainly did not disappoint. Obviously supporting a team week in and week out is a little bit different than when the National Team comes to town, but based on what I’ve seen, there’s a real soccer crowd here.”

There is. There’s one in Nashville, and Boston, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Fort Myers, Florida, and Portland, and everywhere from sea to shining sea. There’s even one in Alabama. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Part of the fun of being a soccer fan over the last 20 years has been that it’s been so underground. So hipster of me, I know. But it’s true. The life skill that I learned sitting in the back of that dark, soccer camp film room had nothing to do with soccer. It had to do with being myself, and loving the things I love no matter what other people thought. My dad still eats Marmite on toast, too, for Churchill’s sake. Loving something obscure said something about me that I liked.

But I’m glad you guys have finally arrived. I also feel like the kid in my elementary school who loved They Might Be Giants forever. One day everyone randomly decided the band was awesome, and then all of a sudden that guy was cool by proxy.

So, welcome to the party. We’re glad to have you. Here’s what you need to know: we hate Mexico, Michael Bradley’s father Bob was one of the best U.S. coaches ever, Alexi Lalas used to make music, Rob Stone has the absolute best Twitter profile pic, and if one of our defenders ever plays the ball back to his keeper when he doesn’t really need to, we boo them. LOUDLY.

The Gold Cup continues on Fox Sports until July 26. The U.S. men play next against Haiti on Friday, July 10th on FS1 at 8:30 Eastern.

You’ll find me here on Twitter, probably stalking Rob Stone.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.