By Jennifer Juneau
As an American sports fan living in Europe I would have to argue Yes while many Americans (who strictly watch MLS) may argue No. So what’s in a name?
When I think of the game in terms of soccer I think of school-age children in the US kicking a ball up and down a field and making endless efforts to roll it into the opponent’s net not only because it’s recreational but simply because it is a popular activity to fit into their over-loaded schedules. (The ball in this vision by the way is strictly black and white.)
Youth soccer is one of the most widely played sports in the US with an estimated 3 million players between the ages of 5 and 19. The induction of the term soccer mom into American speech in the late 1990s does not help to remove any stigma about what the game means in the US in the eyes of the rest of the world. In America everybody plays soccer. Nobody watches it.
When I think of the sport in terms of football the picture is quite different. I see a diehard energy in international players between the ages of 19 and 36. I see bicycle kicks. I see headers. I see fluent dribbling, stunning passes and unsavable shots slammed into the back of a net. I see a distinct offense and a distinct defense and not just a mixed bag of players who don’t have discipline or technique. A select few play football. Millions of people watch it. Think Brazil, think Spain, think worldwide—but don’t think America because America plays soccer.
Would the solution be for Americans to change the name of the sport to take it as seriously as the NFL or baseball? It might sound harsh, but it isn’t the players’ fault. Lack of spectator support is the culprit and if the US national team are in any international competition, don’t be fooled by the country’s cheers because it will only be temporary which leads me to believe it’s not about soccer. It is all about America winning. During the 2010 World Cup, scores of Americans took to bars to watch the matches and were interviewed. Many avid viewers admitted never having seen a match, others were interested only because the US were in a world competition. The rest thought it was boring and complained that “after all that” some games ended scoreless.
In England for example, pride placed on winning an international football match brings a whole different meaning to the word win. The English believe that to win at football is their birthright—the sport has a solid history in England and millions of fans.
American midfielder Landon Donovan of Los Angeles Galaxy must have seen the same thing—and lived it—because after an intense stint at the Premier League’s Everton FC from January 2010 until the start of the MLS 2010 season, he didn’t want to go back to the US game. Who could blame him? Playing top level football against the world’s biggest names only made his return to the US seem bleak. One of only nine American footballers in Britain, Donovan had previously played in Europe while at Bayer Leverkusen in 1999 and again in 2005, although his actual playing time there was minimal.
Having excelled at Goodison Park, club manager David Moyes wanted to extend Donovan’s loan contract to ten weeks beyond the March 15 deadline. Scoring twice out of 13 games, not only had Donovan sharpened his skills (notably passing and corner taking) while playing in the Premier League, he also improved the momentum in Everton’s team form. The US wanted him back, but he was on a playing high having been in awe of the dedication and work ethic among England’s leading players and begged LA Galaxy to let him stay at Everton for a little longer.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena’s plea to bring Donovan back to a country that doesn’t care much for the game seemed unfair, especially after Donovan sighted that “the fans (at Everton) want you to play as hard as you can when you are out there. That is what I like to give when I am out there and they want to see the team win.” The Everton fans gave him a standing ovation after a win over Hull City. Many fans have said they didn’t want him to go, they wanted to see him stay at Everton permanently and couldn’t picture him out of the team. Donovan has stated that he needed to push himself to stay motivated when he returned to the Galaxy after the World Cup. The answer may simply lie in the coaching. If managers from Europe with good reputations and the work ethic and dedication Donovan witnessed in the Premier League came in to coach American club teams they may get a better result.
There has been speculation that Donovan may go back to Everton permanently after his contract with the Galaxy is up. So what will it be for him? Soccer or football?
“It’s been really great and I can’t imagine players in the world, let alone Americans, can say they have played against and beaten Chelsea and Manchester United in the space of 10 days. That has to be the highlight. It’s certainly improved me as a player. I’ve learned a lot technically and tactically.”
Yes Donovan, in exchange for soccer it’s clear you’ve learned how to play football.