There is only one Opening Day at my house, and this year it comes on April 9, when the Giants have their home opener. The Major League Soccer season kicks off a bit earlier than baseball’s, though, so tonight I’ll be at Buck Shaw Stadium to cheer on the San Jose Earthquakes in their first match of the season, which happens to be against the league champions, Real Salt Lake.
I don’t have an obsessive need to see every Quakes’ opener … I don’t even know how many I’ve been to, although one I do remember was the first-ever match in MLS history back in 1996. But it will be nice to revisit the local club, who are starting their third year in MLS since their return to the league.
The mainstream sports media’s response to MLS is predictable. First and most obvious, little attention will be paid to the league. The Sunday Sporting Green will have multiple stories on the Giants and A’s, stories about the 49ers and March Madness and Don Nelson, stories about Tiger Woods … and somewhere around page 4, there will be a brief story about the Quakes match.
Beyond that, we’ll hear the usual litany of reasons why Americans don’t care about soccer. This morning, one sports talk host went on about how Americans don’t want to watch 0-0 games in any sport, because we like scoring. (Nothing beats a goal in soccer, there are plenty of boring soccer matches, and sometimes the boring ones are 0-0, but in general, the quality of a match depends as much on the number of legitimate goal-scoring opportunities as it does on actual goals, which is how some 0-0 matches are exciting.)
The wrong question is being asked, however. Someone made the argument (and I’m embarrassed to admit I forget who, since I agree with it) that asking why Americans don’t like soccer is silly. Americans already like soccer. They watch the English Premier League and the European Champions League, some of them watch the Mexican League and others watch the Italian or Spanish leagues. They watch the U.S. national team … some watch the Mexican national team. There are cable channels devoted solely to soccer … Fox Soccer Channel has been successful enough that there is now a Fox Soccer Plus. In Spanish, there is GOL TV, ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports Espanol, and in my area, at least, four different channels showing Mexican soccer each week. And, of course, this summer the World Cup will return, and Americans will watch it. ESPN has the rights, and they are pushing it big time, for what that’s worth.
Americans like soccer. Quit asking why they don’t, and instead ask, what soccer do they like? Because then you’ll get to the heart of the matter. On the list of things American soccer fans watch, Major League Soccer ranks somewhere down the list. Yes, the fans of the individual clubs care about MLS and their team … I’ll always watch a Quakes match before anything else. But the remainder of American soccer fans, the ones who don’t have a particular MLS team they root for, will they be watching MLS this weekend? Among the viewing choices this weekend for American soccer fans is English Premier League action, including Chelsea, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool. From Italy, we can watch Roma vs. league leaders Inter Milan, or Juventus, or Napoli, or Sampdoria. From Spain, Barcelona (arguably the best club in the world), and a matchup of Madrid titans, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. There’s Bayern Munich, and Chivas of Guadalajara (the most popular Mexican team in the U.S.), and Sevilla and Milan and Sao Paolo.
And there are a bunch of MLS matches. The number one match of the weekend for me is San Jose-Real Salt Lake, as it is for Quakes fans and Real fans. But the fan with no clear MLS rooting interest is going to watch Chelsea and Inter and ManU and Arsenal and Chivas and Barcelona, and if they aren’t burned out from too much soccer, then maybe they’ll watch a little MLS.
This does not mean Americans don’t like soccer. It means they have plenty of choices in regards to what soccer they watch. It’s MLS they don’t particularly care for. And the mainstream media isn’t interested in spending a lot of time covering a sport where the Americans aren’t the best. The NBA is the best basketball league, MLB is the best baseball league, the NFL is the best football league … but MLS is only about the nth-best soccer league. MLS is a niche market.
But soccer is not. So when you get ready to trot out your tired complaints about soccer, remember that whatever else you might say, you will be wrong if you say Americans don’t like soccer.