On an operational level, the shortcomings of soccer development in the U.S. are so well documented that we, as a country, seem to chase each other around their poles at least once a year. There is pay-to-play, which limits youth interaction. There is coaching education, which is historically substandard. There is the scouting apparatus, which is an incomplete shell. There is the size of the country, which is prohibitively large. There is pro/rel, which is practically a dog whistle for “indiscriminate yellings of any magnitude.”
These battles are already well underway. Those individual battlefields are awash in the smoke from the ringing cannons, the fields themselves littered with the detritus of a thousand internet arguments won and lost on Pyrrhic terms. The business of improvement in these areas will continue as training compensation lawsuits play out in the public purview and the Development Academy attempts to grip its future on both sides and MLS attempts to jam investment down its operational ladder and USYS and USCS attempt to financially undergird youth systems of their own. These conversations and arguments are noble ones, but for those in the fight, they are at times numbingly selfsame and insulated from the American sports world at large.
American soccer is a bubble. It is a shrinking bubble, but it is a bubble nonetheless.
Last year, Colin Cowherd used his radio program to talk shop about Christian Pulisic. It was a rare moment of soccer engagement from Cowherd, who’s taken a nominal interest in the game since moving to Fox. Much of that is certainly down to FS1’s ample soccer broadcasting investment, which includes weekly MLS games, U.S. national team coverage and the Bundesliga. It’s the same reason Cowherd spends so much time on the UFC. FS1 owns its rights.
In any case, the moments Cowherd, one of the most numerically popular (if not personally popular) sports personalities in the country stopped for a brief moment to talk Pulisic. Brief.
(There is some level of pain in that video. For that I deeply and wholeheartedly apologize to your sensibilities).
Pulisic, admittedly, is something of a mascot for Cowherd and perhaps those personalities like him. He’s a young player who’s easily pumped full of sunshine (rightfully so) while focusing on his talent (rightfully so) and ignoring the domestic game, which is not at the heightened professional level Americans are so accustomed to supporting (perhaps not so rightfully so?). In any case, the moment was an island in the shade for Cowherd. He quickly went back to spinning tired yarns on LeBron James and Tom Brady and the door was shut.
In an exploratory human interest feature last year, the Washington Post dug into Cowherd a bit and mined his motivation. I found this to be of particular interest.
“Everybody knows who won the game,” Cowherd said. “You can get the stats. You can get the highlights. So what am I supposed to provide? To me, I’m supposed to provide a layer beneath that: Make you think, make you mad, make you laugh, make you something.”
The reason Cowherd doesn’t talk soccer more? It doesn’t make enough American people feel enough things.
This, I think, is the next frontier for the game’s household ubiquity in the U.S. I mention Cowherd not because he is the pinnacle of independent punditry in this country, but because he’s emblematic of the American sports media zeitgeist. As much as the game has its on-air evangelists here, it has so few.
Soccer coverage in the U.S. has never been more robust and far-reaching, notably under the auspices of FS1’s deepening stable of on-air talent and ESPN’s mature match coverage. But the broader fight for hearts and minds at the next level won’t be waged through the efforts of those men, who are Soccer Men and preach mostly to a choir already won. It’ll come through the subtle turning of the wheel from men positioned like Cowherd, who happen to inject their all-sports broadcasts with copious amounts of soccer in midst of all else.
This is the next battlefield for soccer’s ascendancy, the next relevant barometer that has yet to so much as appear. As trivial as it may seem, soccer’s appearance as a headliner, occasional as it may be, in corners like SportsCenter and on daily talk shows? A new frontier entirely.
The reality is that blowhard analysis broadcasts are largely a reflection of zeitgeist, which is a reflection itself of the sporting temperature of neighborhoods and communities and towns and cities. You may not like them – you may not even particularly listen to them – but they chase consumer trends. MLS’s rise as a relevant force has yet to really reach their airwaves, though, and its reputation (and admitted status as a nowhere-near top league in the game) has proved a notable hindrance. You may hate them, but these talk show pundits drive discussion, negative or otherwise. Skip Bayless may be a sore on the side of American sports, but he’s a sore NFL and NBA fans have generated a right to criticize. What does it say that Bayless has probably never uttered the word ‘soccer’ on a broadcast before? A good thing? Perhaps. A reflection on the cultural tenor of the game on a broadcast that is routinely hate-watched perhaps more than any other on sports TV? Most certainly.
Bobby Warshaw recently wrote a smart piece for Howler that drills into the psyche of sports hate that I think you should read. Here’s the most relevant passage.
MLS doesn’t have a detestable team yet. Some fanbases have rivalries—the Cascadia triumvirate as the obvious example—but the league, and country as a whole, doesn’t have someone to rally against and dislike. I have no idea how the LA Galaxy have gotten away with it for so long, but MLS still doesn’t have anyone that galvanizes a wide audience and draws neutrals’ attention. And I think that’s due to change soon.
This notion of sports as a sort of Norse saga with villains and superheros and hammers and valiant longboat raids has long been a staple of sports in this country, especially in the NBA and the NFL, the two drivers of sport in the U.S. Something as small as Steve Kerr laughing over a question about starting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together on an All-Star team turns into a full day’s worth of media sparring. MLS has long lacked in this regard, players largely content to fly humbly under the radar and get their work in before punching the clock. The game’s popularity itself can only do so much without a cast of heroes and villains.
This, ultimately, is a significant chunk of the national media’s role. It can be a nasty business, but it also adds a sometimes vital supplementary narrative to the actual on-field action. Watch the game on Saturday, envelop yourself in the drama on Tuesday. And on the cycle burns.
Love or hate men like Cowherd and Shannon Sharpe, the next evolutionary iteration for the game’s popularity in this country will be fought and won under banners of men like them. They may ultimately be leeches profiting off the back of the work of men like Alexi Lalas and Brian Dunseth, who’ve been toiling at it for years, but it’s their cross-sports national platforms the game needs, not necessarily the men themselves.
Soccer in the U.S. is progressing just fine. It will continue to do so, thanks in large part to those broadcast acolytes who spread the Good News on a weekly basis. But until the game crosses over into Cowherd Status – that is, until its flares are lit by men and women who are not soccer specific men and women – then the game’s bipartisan heralds will continue to sit idly. And it will probably take years, until men like Cowherd are replaced by the new cultural vanguard raised with the Premier League and the Bundesliga and Serie A and the Copa Libertadores and, yes, MLS a click away. And perhaps then we will have our national villains and our heroes.