My brother has hated sports all his life. Hated might not be the most accurate word, but he’s never been a willing fan. To him sports are silly, boring and a pointless way to spend your free time.
Imagine the surprise when I received this text from him last month before the U.S. played Germany in the final Group G match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
He drove to Michigan to some music festival, but — overcome with the spirit of “I believe that we will win” — decided to walk four miles to an indoor water park to watch that match. (Apparently it was the closest venue with a television — I didn’t ask for more details, sorry.) He wasn’t alone, later telling me he walked with a pack of fans from California in their bomb-pop USMNT jerseys and bandannas. The place was packed from the texts he sent, even with some German festival goers.
As we all know, that U.S. hype train came to an end on July 1 at the hands of Belgium in the Round of 16. The “believing” screeched to a halt quicker than a guitar solo in a Steve Perry ballad. Some, certainly not all, Americans swept up by a month of soccer fever might make attempts to keep following the sport (in earnest) post-World Cup. Being that it’s the world’s game, soccer doesn’t begin and end with the World Cup.
Here’s a look at some of the upcoming major tournaments before the next World Cup four years from now in Russia, including the long-rumored centenary Copa America to be held in America:
- 2015: African Cup of Nations (Morocco, January); Women’s World Cup (Canada, June-July); CONCACAF Gold Cup (TBA, July); Copa America (Chile, June-July)
- 2016: Centenary Copa America (United States?, June-July); Euro 2016 (France, June-July); Olympic Soccer (Rio, August)
- 2017: Confederations Cup (Russia); CONCACAF Gold Cup, African Cup of Nations (Libya); World Cup qualifying
- 2018: World Cup (Russia)
A few reminders before we delve any deeper. Nothing else in the soccer world quite compares to the month-long party that is the World Cup, especially this tournament with its goal-filled matches (2.67 per match!), favorable television spots and patriotic fervor swirling around the four USMNT games. Although the Premier League or the Champions League are popular and rival the NFL in terms of global reach, those competitions remain a niche sport in America. Odds are your entire office isn’t going to shut down and collectively watch and discuss a West Brom-Aston Villa Tuesday afternoon game, either.
[RELATED: ESPN’s 2014 World Cup Version of One Shining Moment is Goosebump-Inducing]
Remember the World Cup is perfect, too, in its immersion in the sport for a month, cropping up at a time on the calendar when there aren’t a ton of sports going on aside from regular season baseball and in this particular year NBA free agent madness. Consider the World Cup your soccer version of a dieting “cheat day.” You get all the rich, sweet goodness of the sport without all the off-putting nonsense the club game often churns out, such as substance-less transfer rumors, pouting players, “mind games” and managers consistently under fire — assuming you can turn a blind eye to the unsavory folks who run FIFA.
Look, it’s a free country and nobody is forcing you to become a soccer fan if you don’t so choose — it feels like this disclaimer can’t be stated enough given how the Internet operates. Even so, every four years many Americans pledge in mid-July (again maybe because college and NFL football haven’t gotten into overdrive yet) to watch more soccer after the World Cup and stay involved in the sport – something made easier via a never-ending array of cable and satellite television packages, coupled with the information readily available on the Internet.
If you do feel like scratching the soccer itch, here are some tips. Be fair warned, down the road when you’re watching a mid-week Europa League qualifier or waking up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning it won’t be the whole world chiming in on social media like it was during the World Cup, instead it’ll be hollow-eyed, twitchy, “soccer snobs,” aka losers like me. (But hey, it’s actually more fun that it sounds!)
Or, more realistically, you can just enjoy club soccer casually like you might do for any sport and be better off for it.
How to keep the Post-World Cup soccer hype train alive:
Support your local MLS team (if it’s logistically reasonable): MLS continues to expand. Soon cities like Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta will have teams to call their own. In the age of smartphones and ADD-addled attention spans, attending most live sports tends to be a wallet-draining bore (cough, cough, NFL). Although we can quibble about the quality of play on the field, MLS in the stands is first rate making it one of the few sports in 2014 that is more fun to attend in person than the comfort of the couch — so long as you’re not driving more than a couple hours.
Certain cities: Portland, Seattle and Kansas City immediately jump to mind as places you want to go and watch a match, while others, notably New England playing at cavernous Gillette Stadium still feel like a soccer wasteland, as if it’s still 1997. Every MLS team does have a designed “supporters section” that encourages active participation to create the in-game atmosphere, rather than some lame DJ in the booth cranking track seven on a Jock Jams CD. Odds are if you have children, they’ll be more engaged by an MLS game than many other North American sports offerings.
MLS does, however, have an odd, if not random, television pattern. No one will ever weep for East Coast viewers, but a 10:20 p.m. kickoff for the Sounders-Timbers game on a Sunday night is a tricky spot — even on the same day as the World Cup final.
If the 2014 World Cup is your first exposure to soccer, try to attend a game in person at the highest level nearby whether that be MLS, USL, NASL or even college. You’ll come away with a much greater appreciation of the athleticism it takes to play soccer at a high level. Live soccer is terrific– even MLS, haters be damned. Watching a game jumping up and down and cheering in the supporters section might sweep you up more than watching the USMNT playing in a crowded bar or outdoor viewing area.
Worst case scenario? Summer tailgating … and that’s never a bad thing.
Pick a foreign club team to follow: In practical terms, America is a huge country — duh. If you live in say, in Charlotte, N.C., an MLS team playing in Atlanta or Washington might as well be the same as a team playing in London or Barcelona. European, Mexican and or South American soccer is fairly easy to track down on television in American nowadays whether it be the Premier League on NBCSN or Serie A on beIN or Liga MX on Univision, which has ratings to dwarf most other soccer telecasts. We’re almost to the point where it’s more of a surprise when a major club match isn’t available on American television than vice versa. (Every EPL game was streamed free by NBCSN this year, too.)
Given the language barriers involved — Google translate is only so reliable if you choose, for some odd reason, to follow a team in Sweden — the Premier League in England remains the go-to league for most Americans. The EPL is also the best-marketed league in the world, so it’s hard to avoid its charms even if in any given year only 4-5 of the 20 teams has a realistic shot to win the title.
My best suggestion, watch some games in various leagues. Form opinions on the players or teams you like and pick one that way, rather than gravitating to the usual names like Manchester United or Real Madrid, the Dallas Cowboys/New York Yankees/Los Angeles Lakers of the sport. Find a team or some players you like and then worry about learning all the intricacies of European soccer like promotion/relegation, the transfer business, the various cup competitions, etc.
It’s daunting and a lot to process, but you’ll pick it up quick enough if you don’t let it overwhelm you at the beginning. (Quick tip: you can learn a lot of the teams/leagues/etc. by playing FIFA, if you’re into video games.)
A word of caution, since playoffs don’t exist in most leagues and there isn’t league-wide financial parity, opting for a mid-table team like Newcastle or Tottenham means a lifetime of frustration and near misses. Following teams across the globe that realistically will never win anything might satisfying some self-hating form of sports martyrdom or provide a kernel of “credibility,” but rooting for a team that will probably never win anything where a “good” season means avoiding relegation might not end up the most fulfilling life choice you’ve ever made, making jumping on the bandwagon of a Manchester City-type much more palatable. Earlier in the 21st century when the Premier League became easier to follow in America, many fans gravitated toward Fulham since it signed U.S. Internationals like Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra. In May Fulham was relegated, setting up a tricky spot for American fans who want to keep following the team now that it’s in the second rung of English soccer.
A team like Everton would be a popular choice given it employs American Tim Howard and Roberto Martinez, who was nothing short of excellent as a guest-analyst for ESPN during the World Cup, but even the Toffees face a reality where finishing fourth is about the best they can expect, along with making a deep cup run.
Even marquee, established squads like Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool — like any team regardless of the sport — come with their own unique sets of frustrations to baffle fans. Or, if you’re more casual there’s always the option to watch the Champions League, Premier League, Liga MX or whatever league you prefer for the high-quality soccer itself without forming a deep rooting interest.
Volunteer as a coach or referee: If you genuinely want to see the United States win the World Cup in this lifetime? Help out however you an at the grassroots level, simple as that.
Again, all this sounds like a lot to process all at once and immersing yourself into soccer seems like it has a steep learning curve — but it really doesn’t. Soccer is just a sport like anything else. In this free country of ours, your options of how you chose to continue to consume (or ignore it) soccer after the World Cup are truly up to you.