Real Salt Lake

Why Soccer Is the Future of Sports in America

I remember being a kid in the 1980s.  The sports heroes of mine and my friends played in Major League Baseball, the NBA, and, to a lesser extent since I didn’t grow up in a football town, the NFL.  Soccer was a sport I played as a kid because it was fun.  I wasn’t very good at it so I never thought about playing for a competition team.  Little league soccer was the beginning and end of my knowledge of soccer as a kid.  Unless you count Pelé’s Soccer, the game for the Atari 2600 where little blobs would pass a square back and forth to each other.  But it is not the 1980s anymore.  American kids think of soccer on a much, much bigger scale than we did back then.  And here’s your proof:

Copyright 2014 - RealExcitingSoccer.com

Copyright 2014 – RealExcitingSoccer.com

Meet “Timmy.”  Timmy is my neighbor who lives up the street.  Timmy is between the ages of nine and eleven and LOVES soccer.  He regularly gets together with two other kids his age on our street and watches Real Salt Lake matches.  Being the responsible adult that I am, I often have to watch RSL matches on DVR while I take care of parental duties at home.  What this means is that Timmy and the other kids on street often come knocking on my door before I’m done watching with exclamations about how great the match was.  And they don’t even give me spoiler alerts!

Timmy and his friends are the future of sports fans in the United States.  Unlike my generation back in the 80s, they have actual soccer heroes to look up to.  Timmy is wearing a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey, Real Salt Lake shorts, and was just trying out his new Neymar shoes.  His regular, non-cleated wear-around-town shoes are Lionel Messi’s signature shoes.  At his feet is a replica of the Brazuca, the official match ball for the 2014 World Cup.  The official World Cup match ball has had a different name in every World Cup since 1970. But do you think I knew that?  Not as a kid.  Timmy, on the other hand, is fully aware that Brazuca is the special ball for this World Cup.  Don’t even get me started on how excited Timmy and friends have been for the World Cup.

And soccer as the future of American sports goes deeper than just fandom.  Soccer has a lot of advantages over other sports when it comes to kids’ dreams.  If you want to play in the NBA, you better be at least six-foot-five and be able to jump out of the gym.  I can’t find a link for it, but I remember once at a basketball camp as a teenager that a kid raised his hand and asked then future-NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone what he needed to do to play in the NBA.  Malone was brutally honest: “Kid,” he said, “you’re never going to play in the NBA.”  He went on to explain how this undersized kid from Sandy, Utah did not have the God-given gifts to play in the NBA. And it really is true.  With the way that the game is today, there are really only 400-500 guys in the world with the right combination of skill and physical gifts to be able to play in the NBA.  I remember Scott Skiles putting on a clinic when I was young in which he said that he spent 10 hours a day in the gym just to prove that anyone, even short guys with no inherent athletic gifts, could play in the NBA if they worked hard enough.  But the kid who wants to spend ten hours in a gym everyday is going to be hard to come by.

The inherent barriers that exist in basketball and, to a certain extent, football, do not exist in soccer. The best player in the world is only 5’7″.  Another of the best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, is 6’1″ and was recently described by RSL Captain and USMNT player Kyle Beckerman as “big” and “powerful.”  Soccer is a sport that anyone can play.  Timmy comes from a great family of average-sized people.  But his dreams of being a soccer player someday?  Very much alive because soccer is a sport that anyone can play.  If his sports heroes were in the NBA, his dreams of playing professionally would end sooner rather than later.  If he really wants to play professionally, he, of course, is going to have to spend every waking moment on the practice field (Neymar was famously recruited to play for Brazilian club Santos at the age of six!).  But at the age of nine or ten, Timmy’s dream is very much alive.

Kids like Timmy are just one of the reasons that soccer is here to stay in this country and that it will continue to be the fastest growing sport in America.  Sorry, non-soccer fans. 

The Best Soccer Tournament in the USA

I tried to record play-by-play this morning for Colombia vs. Greece but found myself interrupted by parental duties  As long as my wife is out of town, doing consistent play-by-play is going to be, unfortunately, difficult.  I am watching the World Cup as we speak but wanted to bring attention to other soccer going on today that many casual soccer fans might not know about.

Soccer is a funny sport because, unlike other sports, teams participate in multiple tournaments per year that all run concurrently with each other.  In the NFL, winning the Super Bowl is the only objective.  In the NBA, the goal is to win the NBA Title.  Every game played by every team in those leagues contributes directly towards the accomplishment of that goal.  Not so in soccer.  Most every country has at least two championships to win every year.  Spain has the La Liga title and the Copa del Rey.  Brazil has the Brasileirão title and the Copa do Brasil.  England has the FA Cup and the English Premier League title (among others).

La Liga, the Brasileirão, and the EPL are what you would think of as a normal season of sports.  Teams play every other team twice for a total of between 32 and 40 games, depending on the league with the team with the best record at the end being crowned champion.  Playoffs exist in some leagues around the world but rarely follow the system of domestic sports leagues in the USA where the top teams make the playoffs.  While these regular leagues are going on, teams are also competing in their national cup tournament.  These tournaments are usually single elimination where the better team advances to the next round (though sometimes the single elimination is played over two matches, a home and away leg with the winner being the team with the most bowls in both matches combined).  On top of these domestic cup tournaments, the elite teams in each country can qualify for their continent’s champions league, which pits the best teams from each country in the region against each other.  And these tournaments all run concurrently.  So a team might play in its domestic league on Saturday, in its continental championship on Wednesday, and in its domestic cup tournament the following Saturday.

The United States has its version of the above format.  The top league, Major League Soccer, runs from March all the way through to late November or early December.  The USA’s domestic cup is called the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and, believe it or not, the tournament is celebrating its 101st year this year.  It is single elimination and who hosts each match is determined by a coin flip.  The winner of the Open Cup qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental championships for the Caribbean, North, and Central American region.

I love the U.S. Open Cup.  It is a tournament that truly crowns a champion of the USA because it includes not just MLS teams but also teams all the way down the four-tiered U.S. soccer pyramid.  So MLS teams play NASL teams play USL Pro teams play USLPDL teams.  Even local amateur teams can qualify to play in the early rounds of the Open Cup.  This year’s open cup gives us a new regional rivalry as the New York Red Bulls of MLS play the New York Cosmos of the NASL. In the years to come, the three teams in New York could build epic rivalries.

I bring the Open Cup up in the midst of all of the fun of the World Cup because, despite most domestic leagues going on hiatus, including MLS, the Open Cup has matches over the next few days.  Real Salt Lake, for example, travels tonight to face NASL side Atlanta Silverbacks.  The match will be broadcast on RSL’s website, at this link.  If you haven’t had your fill of soccer today, check it out.  Anything can happen in the Open Cup, which is why it is, in my opinion, the USA’s best soccer tournament.