Carry The Fire
A Piece By Minnesota United Blogger Jason Concepcion
Towards the end of Cormac McCarthy’s desperate tale of love and post-apocalyptic survival, The Road, a dying man implores his son to “carry the fire.” That’s what I keep returning to when I think about the state of soccer in the United States of America in the second decade of the 21st century. In the nearly 30 years since the original NASL folded in a cloud of hubris and legal filings, soccer in America has been dead, buried, disinterred, rediscovered, derided, and now ascendent. There’s the feeling from those who carried the fire through the dark times that, just maybe, the ghost of an ember borne through the the post-NASL wilderness has finally caught hold.
But we can do better than feelings; we can talk about numbers. Last year was Major League Soccer’s best attended season in its history. The recent CONCACAF Gold Cup final drew a television rating of 1.7, beating two nationally televised MLB games and a UFC bout. And, perhaps the most concrete proof that the age of the American Soccer Fan is upon us, NBC’s winning 250-million dollar bid for the rights to broadcast the English Premiere League in the US. It’s all well and good to talk about the soccer as the most popular sport amongst American kids age-whatever-to-whatever with so-and-so-million kids tumbling out of minivans every year to engage in organized youth soccer, but when big money media entities like FOX, ESPN, and NBC are willing to back the sport, well, clearly we have arrived at a place that soccer fans in, say, 1996 would’ve considered a promised land. Carry the fire, indeed.
For me, the most important factor in soccer’s rise in America is the internet. In the post-World Cup America of the 90’s, there simply weren’t many avenues for soccer fans to consume the sport as it existed on a professional level. You could attend an MLS game, if your city had a team. You could watch an MLS game on television, a hit-or-miss proposition depending on, again, if your city had a team, and if your team had a TV deal. Watching the foreign leagues–Seria A, La Liga, EPL, Bundesliga–in many cases involved a satellite dish, which usually meant finding a soccer-friendly pub. That was basically it. If you were looking for soccer coverage in the media, MLS or otherwise, the pickings were very slim, and of those, even fewer could be considered safe-havens, free of derisive talking heads, snickering in suit coats. It would not be uncommon, in those days, to see an anchor call a highlight package in tones lacquered with snark while playing up the foreign-ess of the player’s names, capping it off with a stage sigh before announcing “nil-nil” like that was the worst 30 seconds of their life. Punking soccer was socially acceptable and pervasive, and if you didn’t like it, well, just be glad they’re even talking about it.
The internet changed that. First, it gave those who carried the fire a safe place to gather, like a rough airstrip hacked out of the dark jungle–you can land here. Second, the development of file-sharing and streaming video gave American fans immediate access to the greatest players in the world. If someone were to ask me today how they can start trying to appreciate the game starting from scratch, I’d tell them to YouTube Messi, Xavi, Henry, Zidane, Ronaldo (fat Brazilian version), Ronaldo (current version), Bergkamp, Ronaldinho, Le Tissier, Cantona, and on and on.
So, on the precipice of a the NASL fall season, the state of the game in America better is than it has ever been. Sure, even now, some of the more ossified figures of American sports punditry might occasionally pipe up with something smart, like Mike Ditka saying “If god intended us to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms.” But these are just the last bleats of a dinosaur as it sinks into the tarpit of history, illuminated by a growing fire.
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