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The Soccer Wars Are Over

OK, a note on the Soccer Wars. The truth is this: soccer has won. 

No-one expects soccer to supplant the NFL in American affections but any comparison of soccer in America in 1990 and 2010 reveals how much progress the game, and most especially the World Cup, has made. Indeed, I was struck last weekend by how much "bigger" the tournament was in Washington, DC than it was even in 2006.

And it's not just international, immigrant-stuffed cities such as DC, NYC and LA in which soccer has taken root. Among the five TV markets in which the England-USA match did best? Cincinnati.

Anyway, soccer doesn't have to compete with the NFL. The Super Bowl is the great exception to the Age of Niche we live in but even then twice as many Americans don't watch it as do tune in. Soccer will remain a minority pastime but everything is a minority pastime these days. Compare the ratings for the last episode of M.A.S.H with those for the final chapter of Lost if you need to be reminded of this.

Nevertheless, slow but steady growth seems the most probable outcome for US soccer even if the average sports fan will only tune in for the World Cup. Like the Olympics, the tournament is now part of the American sporting fabric.

But what if the Americans actually become properly good? (More likely than not, I'd say.) Which brings me to this claim, in an otherwise perfectly sensible post, by Duncan Currie:

As many commentators have observed, most of America’s top athletes don’t devote their energies to playing “the world’s game.” If even a small fraction of our best basketball players chose to focus on soccer instead of hoops, the U.S. national team could look much different. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons recently pointed to four NBA stars who, if they had channeled their prodigious athletic skills in an alternate direction, could potentially have electrified the soccer universe: Allen Iverson, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, and, of course, LeBron James. Imagine six-foot-eight LeBron going up for headers in the box—who would be able to stop him? For that matter, what if six-foot-four New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss (a multi-sport star in high school) had dedicated himself to soccer rather than football?

Now, clearly there's something in this. If more Americans played soccer you'd imagine more great players would be unearthed. But, come on, pointing to an Alan Iverson or a LeBron James and saying “Wow! Imagine what a freakishly gifted soccer player he'd be” is absurd. In case you need to be reminded: basketball is played with hands, soccer with feet. It's like assuming Usain Bolt would be an unstoppable wide receiver because he's super-fast. But what if he can't catch?

Still, Currie's wider point—that the Soccer Wars are absurd—is correct. America's a big place and there's room for everyone. Soccer won't threaten the NFL but it won't be going away either.

Not that the rest of the world cares much one way or the other, of course.

PS: Bill Simmons writes that Rajon Rondo would be a great soccer player too:

Can you think of a better position for a catlike 6-3 freakishly athletic guy with oversized hands than soccer goalie? I mean, other than point guard? Why do I feel as if we could teach Rondo the position in 10 days and he would instantly become the best goalie in the world? 

Why does Bill Simmons "feel" that? Because he's an idiot.