US soccer: Commend it like Beckham

The critics are wrong. Pro soccer in America is here to stay. And David Beckham's arrival is a good thing.

Professional soccer in America is like ice cream in the fridge: it won't last long. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. So it's understandable why the much-hyped American arrival of global soccer star David Beckham has been greeted with yawns and derision in the States.

No, Mr. Beckham is not the world's best soccer player. He's as well known for his dashing metrosexual fashion sense and protean hairstyles as he is for his wickedly bending free kicks. A man with fewer derring-dos than daring dos can't singlehandedly turn America's Major League Soccer (MLS), which begins its season this weekend, into a prime-time sport. But when he joins the LA Galaxy later this summer, his celebrity status should shed light on a forgotten fact: Professional soccer in America is here to stay.

I should know. As a former season-ticket holder of the old North American Soccer League and life-long supporter of the English Premier League, I've seen what works and what doesn't. Professional soccer has established solid footing today despite two big obstacles: (1) Many Americans loathe watching soccer; and (2) The National Football League (NFL) has a history of bullying the sport.

The first point may seem counter-intuitive, given how popular the sport is among America's youth. The ubiquitous "soccer moms," with their SUVs full of cleated kids, have had their own political demographic for more than a decade. Yet soccer, in the way it defies the melting pot, is deeply un-American.

At the youth level, soccer is dominated by middle-class whites. Is it really that popular with white America or does it represent white exodus from the traditional sports now dominated by African-Americans? For blacks, playing sports may be about gaining access to mainstream America. But for whites, soccer has come to be a sport where their children can play with their "own kind."

US fans, meanwhile, accustomed to slam-dunks, home runs, and kickoff returns, have trouble appreciating the long-form poetry of a good soccer match. After 90 minutes of artistic passing, chesslike strategy, and fierce play, the score may well end at just 1-0 – hardly a boon for TV highlights.

US loathing may also reflect an inferiority complex, because, undeniably, the US is a minnow in the soccer ocean.

The second obstacle – the NFL effort against MLS's predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL) – is not widely known. In its heyday in the late 1970s, the NASL was a serious presence on the US sports scene. The New York Cosmos, the league's flagship franchise, had little trouble filling Giants Stadium, especially when soccer legend Pele joined the team. The NFL, then not quite the juggernaut it is today, watched this development warily. Aided by a willing media, it began to vilify US soccer.

The media portrayed soccer players as foreign invaders, calling them "commie pansies." Soccer was derided as something for immigrants. Fearful of being perceived as un-American, many immigrants disavowed soccer – the pastime of their homelands – and embraced US sports.

In addition to applying pressure to newspapers, radio and television stations, and advertisers, the NFL also prohibited its owners from owning teams in other sports (an action directed chiefly against the NASL). The NASL sued, but the NFL won in court in 1982. The NASL folded in 1984.

Yet today, more than two decades later and against expectations, pro soccer in America is thriving. The MLS, now enjoying its 11th season, has made a commitment to nurturing home-grown talent. That's why Beckham's arrival signals not desperation, but celebration.

MLS today has sound management; its commissioner, interestingly enough, is the former head of NFL Europe. Many of the owners are ardent supporters of the sport; they have poured millions into building stadiums. Quite a few also happen to be billionaires. And some even own NFL teams. Adidas is a sponsor to the tune of more than $100 million over 10 years.

The MLS is nowhere close to the top European leagues – but that's not the point. Beckham's move is a step in the right direction. He still has a sweet right foot and I plan to watch his first match live.

Parnesh Sharma, a PhD student at the faculty of law at the University of Oxford, lives and breathes Arsenal soccer.

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