Other Reviews of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism

"Give Soccer a Little Time to Kick In."
By: Rob Hoffman

Sorry, Frank. You blew it.

Not surprising, considering our encounter back nine years ago on a National Public Radio talk show. I called in to complain about the lack of TV coverage of the U.S. soccer team's matches at the Barcelona Olympics. You basically laughed me off the air. "Who cares?" I think I remember you saying.

That moment stuck with me a few weeks ago when I opened up last month's Sports Illustrated and saw your essay: "Not Our Cup of Tea" by Frank Deford. It's a commentary on "Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism," a book co-authored by University of Michigan professor Andrei Markovits.

Markovits, a Hungarian-born sociologist and political scientist, argues that soccer lost its chance to join the American sports pantheon through a series of blunders by the defunct North American Soccer League and other U.S. promoters of the world's favorite sport. In response, you basically said "who cares" once again: "Ultimately, the reason that we don't care about soccer is that it is un-American. It's somebody else's way of life."

Not to pick a fight with someone who is arguably America's best living sportswriter: But one day in the not so distant future, Frank, you could be surrounded by folks who fit into that "somebody else" category.

As Markovits points out, we are still a long way away from that day. Soccer has not joined what he calls the big 312 of American sports- baseball, football, basketball and (the half) hockey-in terms of media coverage and public interest.

But, with a solid professional league and continued unabated growth in youth soccer, the framework is there.

Consider where I'm coming from: My father was a part-owner of the Philadelphia Fury, a 1978-1980 NASL franchise. In my eyes, the gap between U.S. soccer of then vs. today is like the difference between the 0-11 Northwestern football team of 1980 and last year's version. The evolution has been slow, but definitely appreciable.

Then: NASL teams struggled to comply with a rule that required at least two Americans on the field at one time. One was invariably a goalkeeper because at least U.S. players were good with their hands. Now: Americans represent 73 percent of the players in Major League Soccer, the vastly superior six-year-old successor to the NASL.

Then: I remember going to a 1979 game at Giants Stadium, where a hopelessly outclassed U.S. team was manhandled by a bored French national team, 6-0. Now: the Americans have nearly locked up a place in the 2002 World Cup and could be among the power elite in Japan and Korea.

Then: The best American soccer players nearly always came from soccer hotbeds such as St. Louis, suburban New Jersey and Washington D.C. Now: Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff are arguably the top U.S. stars. And they both hail from towns in rural Georgia that probably didn't even have soccer fields before the 1975 arrival of Pele introduced the sport to the mainstream.

Then: A little more than 100,00 high schoolers played the game in the United States. Now: the number has increased fivefold, rivaling participation in the so-called major sports. In Ann Arbor, better than 2,700 kids played in the city's rec league this past spring-more than baseball and softball (2,000) and basketball (nearly 1,600).

I can buy Deford's point that soccer is purely a participatory event for most Americans right now. MLS games on ESPN can't manage 1.0 ratings, and some MLS teams struggle to attract crowds of over 10,000.

But that too could change in one of two ways. Should the U.S. team pull off a few Lake Placid-like upsets in the 2002 men's World Cup (or a future championship), the sport could see an explosion of interest similar to the one that saw the number of American NHL players dramatically increase after 1980. Nothing piques the interest of the U.S. sports fan like a championship.

Or, far more likely, it will happen once this generation of kids grows up and takes over the remote control. Simply put, soccer is still a foreign game to most American adults, as Markovits points out. Larry Dishman, coordinator of the city's youth leagues, said finding volunteer soccer coaches and referees is one of his biggest ongoing challenges. The current generation of adults views soccer as a novelty, not a mainstream sport. I'm sure their kids - the same ones who now play soccer in the playground, not baseball or football - feel differently.

Give the sport another 20 years or so. And you too, Frank, will be "somebody else."

Rob Hoffman is a News sports reporter. You can reach him at (734) 994-6814 or email him at rhoffman@annarbornews.com

Please also visit Andy Markovits' official University of Michigan website.