It started innocently enough. One morning between games of an LSU baseball home slate, I joined Adam for some late breakfast at The Londoner, a British restaurant in Baton Rouge that serves an excellent Shrimp & Boudin Mac N Cheese, because Baton Rouge. He said there was some soccer match that was going to be on and I figured it would at least be interesting to watch the sport with someone who was clearly invested in it. I didn’t know that The Londoner is something of a hub for soccer fans in Baton Rouge and the size of the crowd there surprised me. A bunch of folks drinking and shouting at games on TV before noon on a Saturday. I instantly knew that these were my kind of people. As Adam detailed in Part I, it was at that point that we decide to help each other appreciate the sport that drives our passions. I taught him about the mystic arts of Sports Entertainment, while he educated me on The Beautiful Game.
What I Knew
Despite my love of all things on this earth that even remotely resemble something that might be called "football," Soccer has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. Until recently, soccer wasn't really on TV in the US, at least not anywhere near it's current level. And while I can easily put in the effort to see an Australian Rules football game at 2 a.m. on a Sunday from halfway around the world, doing the same for soccer just wasn't something that interested me. My knowledge of the sport basically consisted of 3 things:
- UEFA Champions League is a "Street Fighter vs Mortal Kombat" fever dream brought to life.
- Rooting for the US team in a sport the rest of the world cares far more about is hilarious.
- That team in Portland has a chainsaw.
I also knew that some of it aired in the morning hours of the weekends in the fall, and given how depressing College Gameday had become over the last few years I was looking for a substitute to fill the hours before the noon games started.
What I Didn't Know
My god, how deep the rabbit hole goes. People sometimes complain that the minor league system in professional baseball is bloated with it's 3 1/2 levels of competition. Imagine, if you will, that that was expanded to 24 levels, ranging in skill from the New York Yankees, all the way down to the equivalent of beer-league softball teams. Now imagine that technically, any one of those beer league teams could work their way all the way to the majors just on their own merit. Now imagine all of those teams play on a landmass about the size of Michigan. That is the amazing expanse and depth of English football.
And then there's the Germans. And the Italians. And the French. And the Mexicans. Every nation in the world with their own system that covers the entire sport, at every level of play. And things like the UEFA Champions League, an event that seems like a child's fever dream (what if we had a tournament where the NFL champion and the CFL champion played against each other?) And the concept of the worldwide transfer market and loaning players to another club in another country. I haven't even mentioned the national teams. When FIFA claims that football is "The World's Game" they are right on the money. The sheer volume of soccer that is played in every corner of the globe makes the NFL seem like a quaint diversion by comparison.
I also learned that, like any sport, the team every soccer fan hates most of all is their own.
What I Liked
While daunting at first, actually following English soccer in the US is pretty simple. I had the benefit of getting into a sport seemingly at the exact moment where it's never been easier to follow it in the U.S. It's simple: NBC has the contract and the games happen once a week around the weekend. If your game isn't on NBC SN, it's on their app or it's on the Extra Time stations that NBC has managed to sneak onto every cable provider's dial in the US, seemingly without notice. (Go ahead and look, you've probably got them too and had no idea). If I missed a match or, more likely, slept through it on a Sunday after a tailgate, it was dead simple to roll out of bed and catchup with a replay. With Adam's guiding hand and the constant talk of every other sports blogger I know, it was also easy to keep up with the big events taking place elsewhere, like whenever an MLS match was going crazy or if El Clásico was worth tuning in to.
It’s hard to get into a sport as a neutral observer, so I needed to pick a team. Choosing the path of least resistance, I picked Arsenal, mostly because they are Adam’s favorite team, but they also seemed to be on the higher end of successful. I was warned very early on by Adam that there was no point in randomly picking a club just because they had some obscure, silly British name because they’d play miserably and I’d probably lose interest. Following Arsenal proved to be a good choice as the team got decent media coverage here in the US and between that and our excellent brothers over at The Short Fuse, it was fairly easy to keep up with the day-to-day goings on with the club. As an outsider, it was kinda fascinating to watch the season start off with high expectations, fall short of those expectations, and watch a fanbase set itself on fire over a head coach not named Les Miles.
Another thing that has helped grow my fandom of the sport is that, for the most part, US fans tend to not take it all that seriously, and I mean that in a good way. There are extremists, to be sure, but the mood I generally get from U.S. Premier League fans of any team is much more joyous than stressful. They all seem really happy that the sport as a whole is taking off in this country, and that makes the entire conversation more enjoyable to follow and engage with. A prime example of this was the last month and a half or so of the season, when it started to become clear that tiny upstart Leicester City was on a path to win the league. The miracle team that defied 5000-to-1 odds seemed to unite every PL fan I knew in jubilation at watching the impossible happen.
As I watched more matches and got familiar with Arsenals roster, understanding the game of soccer also started to become easier. The constant back and forth with small moments of success, surrounded by an interminable ground war. Watching a team attempt to setup an attack while also trying to prevent the inevitable counter. The strategy of flopping around like a fish on the turf to burn time just to the point where a ref might give you a penalty, but not actually crossing that line. I’m far from a point where I think I’ve got a complete knowledgeable grasp on the sport, but it’s coming.
And with that knowledge comes the ability to appreciate the differences in the many incarnations of the sport. Noticing the very real talent differences between a PL match and an MLS match. Seeing how players act differently, for better and worse, when they’re playing for a national team as opposed to their professional club. The badass dont-take-no-nonsense style of women’s soccer, both at the national team level and even while following the LSU team last season. I want to make special note here that once I started to get a better understanding of the sport, watching LSU soccer was a blast, both on TV and in person.
What I didn’t like
Remember those extremists I talked about? There are assholes in every fan base in every sport, but dear lord are soccer fans some of the worst. They’ve already become mortally offended that I used the word “soccer” and are now planning to firebomb my house and every member of my family for this transgression. Again, it’s not everybody, but the “PLEASE LIKE MY SPORT” portion of U.S. soccer fans would be enough to turn anyone off from it. Also, while I understand it’s strategic value, flopping, especially the near comedic way it appears from some players in some televised matches, is just going to hinder the sport’s growth in America. We are a land of people who lose their minds over a lineman catching a cramp and slowing down a football game, this falling down in agony over getting hit by a stiff breeze aint gonna fly.
And while I’m on this highly unqualified soap box, let me talk about another thing that ticks me off about U.S. soccer, specifically MLS. The ridiculous club names of some British teams is fine for them, but MLS is never gonna get taken seriously with team names like “Orlando City” and “NYCFC” and “Sporting KC”. This is America, and in America a team name is Location+Mascot. Trying to copy odd European naming conventions for U.S. teams is just lame pandering to people who are already invested in the game in the U.S. If you want to get the Average Joe on the street interested, get team names that don’t require a 15 minute explanation of why it sounds weird compared to every other team sport played in this country.
Something else that I didn’t quite enjoy is just how long the season goes on. Premier League play starts this weekend, and will stretch until next May. Towards the end, if it hadn’t been for the Leicester City sideshow, I probably would have checked out for the last month, maybe more, especially as the SEC baseball season kicked in to high gear. I also didn’t keep up much with the sport in the offseason as much as I’d like and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ll turn my attention to it this weekend while the Olympics are still ongoing. Watching random MLS matches on Sunday afternoons has been a nice way to end a weekend this summer, but that’s going to end once I’ve got a mountain of CFB action to catch up on during weekends in the fall.
The future of PodKATT and Soccer.
Before all this, I really had no interest in following the sport, but now I'm in. I don't miss a USMNT or USWNT match if I can help it. I'm going to keep following Arsenal during the next season and i'll probably watch more matches during the weekends as time permits. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure if Arsenal is where I want to set my loyalties (feel free to sell me on your favorite team in the comments.) I'm also going to have a grand time watching the LSU women's team play, both in person and on SEC Network. Aside from Portland home games, I still don't really have any interest in MLS, but maybe that will change with time too.
I'm a Soccer fan now. Blame it on Adam and Wrestling.