THe Beautiful Game
written by Torry Threadcraft
illustrations by Joseph Delhomme
American football lies upon a foundation of provincialism. From all the conferences, leagues, and divisions to the idea of end zones and “home turf,” it makes for great rivalries at the both the college and pro level. In the American-born sports that do have global competitions (originally only basketball, but now baseball too, with the World Baseball Classic) the chance to bring trophies home belies an inescapable truth. That, generally speaking, Americans only care about sports that they excel in, making them points of national pride, while disregarding those that they are not as successful at.
This creates the comical scenario where the winners of events such as the Super Bowl or the World Series are declared ‘world champions,’ even as the sports they are ostensibly the champions of are largely only prominent in the United States and a smattering of other countries. In contrast, no other sport encapsulates the notion of a global community and competition more so than soccer, as it belongs to no one country or people exclusively.
In soccer (alternatively known as futbol in France and Spanish speaking countries and calcio, inexplicably, in Italy), the dynamics that emerge from the idea of ‘club and country’ creates a poetry of sport. The action that takes place on the soccer pitch demands the ability to improvise at a moment’s notice, an artistic principle embraced in music and dance by cultures across the globe. The World Cup focuses the grandeur of the Olympics onto one single, beautiful game.
Cosmically speaking, the United States’ absence in this global competition through this current presidency is cruel, but understandable. In essence, this absence is indicative and symbolic of many of the defining issues of American society on both the global and domestic level as they pertain to wealth, race, community and inequality.
In terms of sheer fanaticism, college football comes the closest to international soccer due to the fervor of the rivalries, but even that caters to a fiercely regional audience. Not to mention, the NCAA’s existence is underscored by the exploitative nature of the league’s cartel. At the professional level, the schematic complexity of American football is drowned out by its inherent violence. Moreover, in preparation for joining the professional league, college players are shuttled into academic departments that focus on maintaining their eligibility to play, rather than cultivating their academic curiosity.
The NFL’s executives and team owners don’t help matters, catering to the racist tendencies of their conservative fan base while simultaneously ignoring the communities that, in large part, make up their rosters. By the time they get to the professional ranks, football players are virtually expendable and their treatment reflects that. This fact has become increasingly visible as more information emerges regarding the manner in which the NFL buried their findings on concussions. The majority of the league comes from low-income communities, so the risk of losing their livelihood outweighs any greater social imperative that they might feel. In the grand scheme of things, stars like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett are examples of an increasing consciousness, but at the end of the day, they are still outliers.
The on-field moments demonstrating creativity are fleeting in American football. Highlight plays are made in space, but the foundation of the game--offensive and defensive line play--is marred by the sheer mass of the players. At the sport’s inception, the average lineman weighed in at a slight 211 pounds, 100 pounds lighter than the linemen of today.
Trench warfare, while beautiful in its own right, is uniquely grotesque, too American for a modern global audience. In rural and suburban America, finding warm bodies to clog up a ten-yard radius is easy. If you’ve got the measurements, there’s surely a coach around to polish a proverbial lump of coal. However, not everyone is satisfied this current American state of play.
Aaron West doesn’t feel this way. As a four-year letterman for Davidson University and contributor to Copa90, the online home of global soccer fan culture, his knowledge of soccer, domestic and abroad, is second to few. West, an African-American, was born and raised near the storied basketball country known as Tobacco Road and is somewhat of an anomaly. He fell in love with the game early, thanks to the suggestion of a family friend. He played basketball and ran track, but knew he wouldn’t grow to the heights necessary for the hardwood. Luckily, the local scene was there to catch him. The only caveat? The American soccer system.
“I grew up in an interesting situation,” West said when we spoke last week. “I played pickup randomly, and I’d come across some of the best players I ever played with. And the kids either couldn’t speak English or couldn’t play for a club team because they might be undocumented. You can’t get registered without that. They’re not going to play for a club team and not get recognized in the system, then go play for the national team.” As a result, the demographics of soccer playing youth skew away from certain communities based on race and wealth.
One huge factor, in short: poor kids in America--those who are able to without the potential to attract attention from ICE--don’t play soccer. At the least, they don’t play for long. The best youth soccer is played in pay-for-play travel leagues, and Major League Soccer doesn’t pay nearly as much as the NBA, MLB, and NFL, let alone soccer leagues overseas.
“I paid to play,” Aaron said. “My parents had partial assistance because I was good enough, but we couldn’t afford it [long-term]. It’s just a tough system. If you can’t afford it, you can’t play.” In essence, the sport of soccer is prohibitive to those from families with less economic stability. This results in a situation where only those kids with wealthier parents can afford to play a sport with dubious long term money making possibilities.
However, West offers glimmers of hope at the professional and prep levels. Last April, the MLS players’ union announced their salary numbers, showing increases across the board. Total compensation increased, especially for players from overseas. The MLS chose to give each team an additional $400,000 to allocate. Aside from the bonus, the median salary--now $135,000--grew 15% in just one year.
“It’s big now that MLS salaries are going up,” West said. “When I was growing up, unless you were one of the very very best players, you weren’t going to get paid much. The league minimum salary was about $30,000. No kid dreams of growing up to be a pro-athlete saying ‘Yeah! I’m going to make $40,000 a year.’ If you’re an underprivileged kid, you’re trying to get out of the situation you’re in. Sport is a cool pastime, but you want to get rich. You want to make it. There is a high risk, but high reward.
The reward is very high in football, basketball, and baseball, where median salaries are in the millions of dollars. Only now is soccer starting to get to the level in the US where the minimum salary is around $60,000. It’s not crazy, but you can make a living, and it goes up every year. That’s a big step forward. The biggest thing is we’ve got to figure out how to dismantle the system that rewards upper-middle-class white kids, in general.”
West says recreational soccer is increasingly normal, but there is still a disconnect around the adolescent years. It makes sense, considering that the competition for college scholarships and professional prospects start then. Overseas, this is exactly when the elite players begin to stand out on the soccer field. College soccer, in America, is more or less an afterthought, not a springboard to the pros.
“It’s mainly upper-middle-class kids who want to play college soccer,” he said. Playing team sports in college show future employers that you are a good leader, that you are a team player, and are capable of staying poised in the corporate hellscape. As a result, college soccer is not nearly as competitive as other college sports, or soccer overseas, meaning that serious soccer players lack the environment in which to cultivate their talents and improve.
“Typically, if you’re going to be a prospect in soccer, you should be a pro by 16, 17 years old. That’s wildly counterproductive in the US system. It looks good on a resume to be an athlete. But for kids who want to be pros, going to college is a backup path. If you play all four years in college, by the time you get out you’re 21, 22. In soccer, that’s not old, but you should have been a pro four, five years before. You should’ve been playing against grown men by then.”
The Aspen Institute is an international nonprofit think tank and a forum for values-based leadership centered in Washington, D.C. In 2017, their Project Play group released their most recent State of Play report, which analyzes trends and developments in American youth sports. Where soccer is concerned, the study reported both encouraging and depressing findings. According to their research, while the pay for play soccer league industry is as popular as ever, free-play opportunities for youth play continue to decline.
In the counties surveyed by the Institute, less than 1 in 20 children reportedly played soccer near their homes. The same study found club soccer/baseball teams offering programming down to age 4 at $250 per season in some cases. Between 2008 and 2016, youth soccer participation by American children between the ages of 6-12 dropped to 7.7% from 10.9% in 2010--an even greater decrease as over that time, the population of children in that age group has increased overall. Worse yet, the study finds most youth coaches remained untrained in key competencies. Only 26% of youth soccer coaches have been trained in concussion protocols--the least in all sports—even though professionally it has the second highest number of concussions.
Despite those stats, in West’s opinion, the US is beginning to see the tides turn. In 2007, the MLS joined two other North American soccer leagues to form the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a system of academies in MLS cities, more closely aligned with the European model. Though still pay-to-play, in terms of apprenticeship, it constitutes a step in the right direction.
“A while ago,” Aaron said, “you’d go to tryouts or get identified by Olympic Development Programs, then one of four different regional camps. You’d go from state to regional and if you did well you’d get into the national team pool. Now, kids play in academies across the country. The system is getting better, so you’ll see American players going to Europe at younger ages.”
In 2016, the U.S. Soccer Foundation launched the Safe Places to Play initiative, bringing 50 soccer fields to underserved neighborhoods. “In every urban center they try to make easily accessible soccer fields. It’s a huge thing for soccer, because you can get good at football, baseball, basketball, without playing with people who are good, on a regular basis.” So in a country where athletic marvels litter the NCAA and NFL, when will that talent trickle its way into the U.S. Men’s National Team?
When we spoke, Aaron was in Miami for Neymar Jr.’s Five, a five-a-side soccer tournament bringing players from across the world together. Despite the U.S.’s failure to qualify for the Cup, Aaron saw a nation on the precipice of contention. “It’s an interesting case because the US missing the World Cup made a lot of people stand up and say ‘we need to change this,’” he says. “That’s the case for sure, but on the other hand, the new academy system we’ve got is coming along. It’s closely mirroring the European academy system. So it’s bad, but it’s not all gloom and doom. The young players we saw today, the first beneficiaries of that system, played against France today. A lot of those guys who were the first products of an American system where you get identified at a young age.”
In short, the change won’t start with the existing pay-for-play institutions, or the rich kids who populate US club soccer to bring it into the mainstream. There’s too much money flowing around to expect institutional access--the best facilities, coaches, competition, and equipment--to be passed down to common folk. In the meantime, the American public is tasked with helping establish a pickup culture. “That street soccer is the core,” West said. “It’s where the greatness, the creativity comes from. That close space, being up against someone all the time. You don’t have time to think, you just have to have the instinct.”
It’s no coincidence that the United States’ soccer hubs--South Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C., Dallas, and Houston--are located in cities with high costs of living, a stark contrast with football, which draws its talent from poor kids in cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike.
The Aspen Institute’s research showed that in all team sports, the participation gap between kids (aged 6 to 12) in households that earn less than $25,000 per year and those in $100,000+ households grew from 23 percentage points to 32 between 2013 and 2016. Imagine the gap in soccer specifically. “The US system is still set up to make the people in charge a lot of money,” Aaron says. “Thousands and thousands a year go into youth sports.”
In March, Aaron saw that instinct building in the streets of Atlanta, where the city has responded to Atlanta United, an expansion team, in stunning numbers. Smack-dab in American football country, United broke its own single-game attendance records in its second year, and reached the highest attendance numbers in MLS history. The city quickly moved to capitalize.
Soccer in the Streets--an organization empowering underserved youth through soccer training, character development, mentoring, and employability programs--built a small pitch in MARTA’s (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) Five Points station, an accessible pickup center in the Blackest city in the country. In coming years, SITS plans to put nine more pitches around MARTA stations. Considering the socioeconomic background of those who use Atlanta’s public transit, this would be an astonishing chapter in one of America’s fastest-growing cities.
To offer a glowing prediction of American soccer supremacy is tempting. The tragic irony is that devotion to American sport often relies on escapism. The tides are turning--see Colin Kaepernick, amongst others--but by fleeing global cultural literacy, fans have crippled a sport that could catalyze cultural exchange. “We don’t embrace our Latin American population here,” Aaron says, “we don’t do it period and especially not in soccer.” The major players in the football-industrial complex have turned a blind eye to the institutions of sport, and thus, removed themselves from one of the few remaining global stages. In large part, it’s up to the powers that be to determine whether this year’s failure to qualify for the World Cup serves as the impetus for change, or just a blip.