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July 3, 2014

STAWAR: American soccer: An Oxymoron?

— Recently soccer has been showing up everywhere,  even in the  local news. The News and Tribune just reported that the Louisville City Football Club professional soccer team is considering practicing at a training facility located in Jeffersonville. The club announced that an Orlando team is relocating to Louisville and  will play in Louisville Slugger Field beginning in April. The team will  be part of the United Soccer League Pro, which is affiliated with Major League Soccer (MLS).  

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the World Cup has created a tremendous surge in television ratings because of the American team’s stronger than expected opening play. The  U.S. World Cup match against  Portugal turned out to  the most watched  soccer match ever in the U.S. with more than  24.7 million total viewers. Lee Berke, a sports-media consultant, says “International World Cup soccer has definitely arrived in the U.S.”     

To put this in some perspective, last year’s  MLS  matches averaged only  about 174,000 viewers a game. Even the finals on ESPN had only half a million fans watching. The average run of the mill Sunday National Football League game garners more than 20 million viewers, NFL playoff games average 30 to 40 million fans, and the last Super Bowl had more than 111 million viewers.    

Despite its second string status, soccer viewership has grown by more than 6 percent over the past two  years. The Wall Street Journal attributes this increase to the growth in America’s Hispanic population, which according to census data is up from 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, in 2002 to   more than 17 percent in 2012. Keith Turner, president of marketing for the Spanish Language Network Univision says that he believes that the Hispanic audience’s enthusiasm for the sport is “clearly fueling the growth.”

On June 25th, television pundit Ann Coulter managed to incur the wrath of America’s soccer aficionados by writing a provocative column entitled: “America’s Favorite National Pastime: Hating Soccer.” Coulter says that in order not to offend anyone, she had held off writing about soccer for more than a decade,   which she maintains is about the length of your average soccer game. I’m not sure how much she was kidding, but Coulter called the country’s preoccupation with soccer a “sign of the nation’s moral decay.”  

Coulter criticized the sport for not requiring true athletic skills and ignoring the importance of individual achievement. She also said that soccer has too few opportunities for humiliation or injury to be considered a major sport. According to Coulter, soccer, like the metric system, is just too “foreign” for Americans.   

I’ve personally watched a few colleges and at least one professional soccer game when I lived near St. Louis. For years soccer has been a popular sport in this region of the country. Both the St. Louis University Billikins, who won 10 NCAA soccer championships, and my alma mater, the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Cougars were led by Bob Guelker, a National Soccer Hall of Fame coach. The Cougars won their NCAA Division I championship back in 1979.    

 I have to admit that like most Americans I initially found soccer to be pretty boring. The  size of the   field alone is intimidating and it was exhausting to see so much running with so little consequence. In some respects soccer is  much like baseball was back in the era when pitching completely dominated the sport and drawn-out, low scoring games were the rule.   

 In high school  our physical education teacher made us play soccer every spring. The official curriculum at that time consisted of softball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and soccer in the spring,  interspersed with embarrassing and occasionally terrifying movies about puberty, hygiene, and safety.  The unofficial curriculum consisted of being chased by bullies 45 minutes every school day morning. For the bullies physical education was one continuous game of dodge ball. The only seasonal differences were in the types of balls they threw at us. Of all the sports we played, I actually preferred soccer. The large field offered the greatest opportunity for evasive maneuvers and the ball generally stung less when it hit you.    

Our oldest son and daughter both played soccer when they were about 7 and 9 years old. It seemed like that summer my wife Diane and I virtually lived in our van parked at the soccer field. We were always either dropping a kid off  or  picking one up. Our daughter and her friend were both bigger and more aggressive than many of the boys on her team, whom she referred to as “twerps.”     

Like other sports where parents get involved, youth soccer had both its up and down sides. After our children were older and no longer playing, I recall one parent who told the little girls he coached, to kick their opponents in the ankles, so that they couldn’t run as fast. You would think that was bad enough, but the fellow turned out to be to be our church’s new minister.

Soccer was quite an ordeal when our children were young. These days, however, two of our grandchildren are playing and our daughter is now spending her own time in soccer field purgatory.  

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

 

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