Soccer is the second most popular youth sport in the United States (behind only youth basketball), but the American TV audience for the “world’s sport” remains relatively low. Not only is the MLS less viewed than the NFL, NBA, and MLB, which makes sense given that it is not the world’s best league, soccer events like the Champion’s League and the FA Cup draw small audiences. The most-watched game ever screened in the U.S, the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final, drew an audience roughly a fifth of the size of that year’s Super Bowl. This reality begs a question: Why is there a disconnect here and what are its ramifications? The inflexibility of consumer habits goes a long way towards addressing the first half of the question, but the second half remains sticky. And, yes, it does seem possible that American children not watching elite soccer is in part to blame for the lack of elite American players.
Let’s start with the habit stuff. Despite soccer booming (relatively speaking) in the U.S. after the 1994 World Cup, the sport never became a staple of family TV. Even at the peak of its popularity, soccer was less viewed than the so-called “Big Four.” That means that, even though they likely played soccer, today’s parents didn’t grow up watching soccer. They do not associate it with family events or bonding experiences. They may love soccer, but the idea of sharing that love with their child likely feels slightly, well, foreign.
It does not help that following the week in, week out intricacies of European club soccer is exhausting or that major soccer leagues don’t all have American-style playoffs (though the MLS pointedly does).
Another reason for the disconnect is that the most-hyped games are on at odd hours. For the Champions League, widely considered the most important competition in club soccer, games are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, beginning at 2:45 p.m. on the East Coast. Parents are at work, while kids are finishing up school. The tournament is wildly entertaining and equally wildly inconvenient.
However, the Champions League is just one competition. Weekends carry the promise of league games from around Europe, starting with the early English Premier League games at 7:30 a.m. Eastern, through the late games in Spain, which tend to kick off around 2:45 pm.m EST. That is to say that parents have plenty of opportunities to watch some of the best players with their kids and they still don’t. That’s not a problem per se — there are better things than TV — but it does put young American soccer players in an unusual position.
Kids who watch soccer have a leg up on learning the terminology and a better understanding of what the fundamentals are — if not how to perform them. Any kid in a league gets “pass,” “shoot,” “save,” and “tackle.” But NBC Sports’ Arlo White doesn’t leave it there. Listening to his commentary, kids can learn about “offside traps,” “nutmegs,” and “zonal marking.” These terms are not relevant to U10 games, but they are relevant to basic understanding of on-field dynamics.
Which brings us to strategy. Soccer analysts are well-versed in the specific lingo and beats that come with soccer and traditionally good at conveying their excitement in educational ways (American commentators, specifically, go out of their way to offer explanations). And they do this within the context of 11-on-11 games. That’s important. Most young American kids play six a side and therefore struggle to understand some basic principle when they make the jump to bigger fields. Watching soccer prepares players to take on the adult version of the sport by contextualizing their small side experience. Kids who watch soccer know that they’re going to need stronger legs, more footspeed, and the ability to pass into open space. Kids who may try to skate on athleticism. It may work for a while, but it won’t work forever.
There’s also the issue of creativity. Kids who don’t watch soccer are, in essence, reinventing the game rather than selecting from an elaborating on an array of options. Kids who watch can hone in on footskills they need or methods of attack that are likely to work. They can think about these strategies from a 1000-foot view and, in so doing, get a better sense of what they’re doing and what their teammates are likely doing within games. As in all things, past is prelude in soccer. American kids play the sport like it doesn’t have a past (and like they don’t have proper soccer coaches).
Do American kids need to watch soccer? Is it the best way to train? Will it make them better players? No, no, and quite possibly, but it’s also important to note that it’s fun as hell — particularly in 2018. Not only is it a World Cup year, it’s a breakout year for new talents like Liverpool’s Mo Salah, who came in second in the Egyptian presidential election despite not running for office. Being a fan of a player like Salah helps kids get excited about the sport’s many stages and events. It also gives them a goal (in the ineffable sense). Are they ever going to start for Chelsea? Likely no, but why not try?
And that is, in a sense, the winning argument. Watching soccer helps young soccer players dream bigger. Parents should want that for their kids. Coaches should want that for their player. Children should want more from themselves.
At the end of the day, it’s just logical to introduce a soccer-playing kid into the world of the “other” football. While they may pick up a bad habit or two – no 7-year-old should be trying for rainbow flicks a la Neymar, after all – the positives of learning more about their chosen sport outweigh the possible negatives. Along the way, kids might learn more about the world around them, given soccer’s international flavor, and even start calling their breakfast “magnificent” or “magisterial.” Worst case, watching games with your kid is a fun way to bond over a shared love, whether it be for a player or a team, and celebrating a 30-yard Paul Pogba screamer of a goal at 8 in the morning is an experience neither of you will forget.