Feinstein: Soccer Has Genuine Foothold In America

Soccer has a legitimate following in the United States – and not just during the World Cup

John Feinstein
November 12, 2019 - 8:48 am
Seattle Sounders

USA Today Images

Categories: 

When I was a summer intern at the Washington Post about 100 years ago, I was given the soccer beat—specifically, I was assigned to cover the Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League. Donald Huff, the regular Dips beat writer—their slogan was, “Get your kicks with the Dips!”—was on vacation.

It was a classic intern assignment—the team had a cult following and not much else—but the paper covered the team regularly. For me, this was an opportunity to show that I could write game stories on deadline and come up with feature stories worth reading in-between games.
            
I loved it. I often joked that the Diplomats were so publicity-starved that if I’d asked them to send players to my house (actually it was an apartment) so I could talk to them, they’d have done it. In fact, when the team surprisingly cut several players while they were getting ready to play in Hawaii (the team there was called, cleverly enough, “the Hawaiians”), Terry Hanson, the PR guy for the team, marched a half-dozen players into his Honolulu hotel room to talk to me, one at a time, so I could write a story reacting to the cuts.
            
The players were available, smart and funny. I got great play throughout most of the summer—even though the team was terrible—and, when I was hired in the fall as the paper’s night police reporter, I continued to moonlight covering the team and the NASL. Huff was fine with it. His “real” job was to cover high schools, and he was very good at it. He was happy to retire from covering soccer.
           
In 1978, the league expanded—from 18 teams to 24. The plan was to go to 28, the same number as in the NFL. There would be two conferences—the American and National. Sound familiar? The championship game was the Soccer Bowl. I still have a couple of beer mugs I got when covering Soccer Bowls.
            
One year the Soccer Bowl was in Washington. While I was in New Jersey covering a Washington-New York Giants football game, my boss, George Solomon asked (told) me to stay over an extra day and see if could get some time with Giorgio Chinaglia, who had replaced Pele as the star of the New York Cosmos—the league’s crown jewel.
            
Chinaglia didn’t come to my house but he DID pick me up at my hotel, drive me into Manhattan and then, after lunch, drove me to LaGuardia Airport so I could fly home.
           
After the 1978 expansion, the NASL’s marketing slogan was this: “Soccer, The Sport of the 80s.”
            
The league had launched in 1968 with 17 teams. A year later, five teams were left. The league rebuilt from there—many teams were playing in high school stadiums in the early 70s—and peaked with the move to 24 teams. This came in the wake of the “Pele-craze,” started when Pele signed with the Cosmos in 1975 and team moved to what was then the new Giants Stadium and began regularly drawing crowds of 70,000.
            
But Pele retired in 1977 and the league had added six expansion teams to at least six teams that were struggling financially. By 1984, the league that was the centerpiece of, ‘“Soccer, The Sport of the 80s,” was gone. Poof.
            
I thought about those years on Sunday while watching was is now called, “The MLS Cup,” the championship game of Major League Soccer, which was launched in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup. I flipped over to the game once Lamar Jackson came out of the Ravens-Bengals game because anytime Jackson’s on the field and you aren’t watching, you are likely to miss something spectacular.
            
The Seattle Sounders of MLS—I remember covering the Seattle Sounders of the NASL—hosted Toronto FC and the attendance was an amazing 69,321—down about four thousand from last year’s MLS Cup held in Atlanta.
            
I have to pause here to tell my Sounders story from my NASL days. In 1979, the Diplomats—who were owned at the time by Madison Square Garden, then run by Sonny Werblin, the man best-remembered for signing Joe Namath to the New York Jets in 1965 for a then-insane salary of $400,000.
            
Werblin once told me that money couldn’t buy happiness and then added, “but it doesn’t hurt.”
            
He made a deal to bring Johan Cruyff to Washington. With Pele retired, Cruyff was the biggest name in world soccer—even at the age of 32. To this day, Cruyff—who died of cancer in 2016—remains my all-time favorite athlete among those I’ve covered. He was brilliant, on and off the soccer field: smart, funny and NEVER afraid to tell you exactly what he thought. Frequently, after a loss, I would stand in front of his locker, notebook poised, scribbling away while he attacked his coach, his teammates, the opponents and the entire league for not doing exactly what he was telling them to do.
            
I would show up the next day at practice and he would run over screaming at me, “Why did you put that in the newspaper?”
            
“Because you said it Johan, I was taking notes, remember?”
            
A wave of the hand. “This is impossible. I will never speak to you again.”
            
He’d storm away and then, when practice was over—especially on the road—say, “Where are we going to dinner?”
            
Oh, the Sounders. Seven games into the season, Cruyff—playing midfield—hadn’t scored a goal and he had fired Coach Gordon Bradley half-a-dozen times and wanted the entire team cut. Things weren’t going well. The Sounders came to RFK Stadium and so did Solomon—who had taken to referring to Cruyff as, “the overrated Dutchmen who Feinstein loves.”
            
He had the second part right. About 10 minutes into the game, Solomon stood up and yelled for the whole press box to hear, “Hey, Feinstein, when are you going to have the guts to write that your Dutch pal is done?!”
            
I never had the chance—or the need—to answer.
            
As if he’d been listening—Johan COULD hear everything—Cruyff stole a pass at midfield, zigged and zagged past FIVE defenders, faked the goalie completely out of his shoes and scored what to this day is the greatest goal I’ve ever seen.
            
While everyone in the building was still gasping, I said, “What were you saying, George?”
            
“Never mind,” Solomon answered.
            
Fast forward to 2019. I was skeptical when MLS came into existence after the World Cup. How long, I wondered would the World Cup euphoria last? I had already figured out—thanks to the demise of the NASL—that kids playing soccer didn’t necessarily translate into grownups buying tickets to go watch games.
            
MLS took a different approach than the NASL: it relied largely on American players, even though most weren’t good enough to play in the top European leagues. It began with 10 teams and expanded slowly, although it has picked up the pace in the last 10 years and will be at 30 teams within the next five years. In many places, teams were able to build smaller soccer-only stadiums, most with capacities of about 20,000—which was a good number to keep stadiums full or close to full. Only recently, notably in Seattle and Atlanta, have teams begun to play—and succeed—in NFL stadiums with much larger capacities. The Sounders averaged about 40,000 fans a game this season; Atlanta led the league, averaging 52,510 fans per game.
            
There are now 24 teams and the average attendance this season was a little more than 21,000 fans per game.
            
This is NOT a public service announcement for soccer. But, with the women’s World Cup team generating the excitement it did this past season, the seven-year-old National Women’s Soccer League finally began to gain some traction. Since the U.S. first won the women’s World Cup in 1999, two leagues have come and gone and the NWSL, with nine teams, still has a long way to go. What the first two leagues found was that lots of girls playing the sport doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sale—much like The Sport of the 80s.
            
But, watching the game Sunday, it occurred to me that, almost 40 years after the “Sport of the 80s” slogan fell so flat, soccer does finally have a genuine foothold in this country. The soccer purists will tell you that the level of play in the MLS still isn’t close to that of the top leagues in Europe. So what? The league is competitive, and people clearly enjoy it. The level of play in college basketball isn’t close to the NBA. People still love it, right?
            
It would certainly help if the United States men’s team could get its act together and at least qualify for the 2022 World Cup. The bomb-out in qualifying by the men for the 2018 World Cup no doubt hurt the progress of the game here. There’s nothing Americans like to do more than wave the flag and chant, “USA, USA.” They didn’t get that chance in 2018.
            
But soccer clearly has established a real niche. I know socceristas—and there are now many of them—will claim that the day will come when soccer is equal to football, baseball and basketball in popularity. It won’t. Hockey, maybe.
            
Rather than complain that those who don’t love soccer first, foremost and always are ignorant or wrong, they should enjoy the fact that soccer genuinely has a place in the American sports psyche now.
            
It has come a long way since the days of getting your kicks with the Dips or being The Sport of the 80s.
            
Trust me on this. I know. I was there.
 
 
John Feinstein’s new book is, “Benchwarmers,” the story of a girl who wants to play on the boys sixth-grade soccer team—since there’s no girls team—and even though she’s plenty good enough, is denied a spot by a misogynist coach and has to fight for the chance to play…His book, “The Prodigy,” which chronicles a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters who must fight agents, equipment reps and his father—who are all trying to turn him into a human ATM machine—is now out in paperback. His most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,”—is also just out in paperback. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com