On making it difficult to Americanize soccer

By Paul Gardner

American soccer’s long-standing habit of truckling to things English flourishes yet.

You can get the message by tuning in, any time, to the Fox Soccer Channel, where you will find the word “football” used repeatedly, coaches will be called managers, games (or rather matches) are played on pitches, not fields, and there will be forelock-tugging references to the “laws” of the game. Players -- including those playing the archaic position of center-half -- wear boots.

Shutouts are unheard of on Fox, replaced by the utterly fatuous “clean sheets” -- all this against a background of overwhelming interest in the English Premier League as though no other league matters that much.

Overlooking the rather childish silliness that lies behind this ignorant snobbery, this determination to sound informed, one can ask the serious question: is anyone at Fox (or ESPN that matter, which is equally sycophantic when it comes to Anglophilia) the slightest bit interested in promoting soccer as an American game?

The evidence says, clearly, No. Well, admittedly, in the short-term that is not the aim of the TV companies. Simply getting people to watch their telecasts is all that matters. The good EPL games should do that. The poor EPL games, of which there are plenty, are, of course, never mentioned, or rather are never identified as poor. They must surely be a drag on the patience of even the most devoted viewer. I’m not at all sure how repeated airings of a so-called documentary about Liverpool (really nothing more than a reverential Liverpool FC promo) help, either. But there we are -- if Fox has been consciously engaged in building up an Anglo audience, maybe even something as tedious and tendentious as that helps the cause.

Leaving the offices of the TV guys, we now zoom off to New York’s Fifth Avenue, to alight in the palatial MLS headquarters. Now, here, for sure, is an organization that does have an interest in presenting soccer as a truly American sport, in trying to demonstrate that soccer is a part of the overall American way of doing things in sports, and that does things that the generalized “sports fan” (assuming there is such an animal) can instantly recognize.

Like having an annual player draft. Just like the NFL and the NBA. Even better, a SuperDraft. An occasion that allows Commissioner Don Garber to make his yearly remarks about all the great young American players coming through. Presumably, SuperPlayers for a SuperDraft. If only. Garber has a problem here -- not one of his own making, but one that he seems determined to ignore. The problem, of course, is college soccer. As long as the college game continues to be a thoroughly inadequate pathway to the pro game, and as long as the MLS draft draws overwhelmingly from the college ranks, the huge contradiction remains in place.

One can have sympathy for MLS and Garber. In the absence of an alternative to college soccer as a training ground for American youngsters, what else can Garber do other than to support the showily American -- but increasingly meaningless -- draft?

I see no chance, in any foreseeable future, of college soccer serving as a reliable pipeline for American talent -- rather the opposite, really, as it continues to lure young talent to its lotus fields.

All this is disappointing, because Garber knows full well the shortcomings of college soccer. MLS, to its credit, has made a series of moves -- such as Project-40, Generation adidas, the MLS reserve league, regulation changes to encourage clubs to develop their own young players -- clearly designed to lessen the influence of the college game.

It will be a slow process, but these moves are at least aimed at helping the development of young Americans, at pushing soccer forward as an American activity.

But MLS cannot escape the accusation of swooning in the British orbit. I suppose -- I trust -- we are now over the worst of MLS’s Beckham worship. It really ought to have sunk in by now that Brits have little interest in, or knowledge of, American soccer. And certainly no respect.

A recent example comes from one of London’s leading tabloids, the Daily Mirror. MLS, the Mirror informs us, wants to use Beckham to recruit EPL stars to come to the States; it mentions Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch and Michael Carrick as targets. And why would they (hardly an irresistible trio, I’d say) want to come to MLS?

The Mirror explains by quoting “an MLS source” -- “With the wages, lifestyle, and anonymity the world’s top soccer players have playing in the MLS, it makes it an ideal destination for them to finish their careers.”

The MLS source is not named. Of course not -- who would want his name on that spectacular drivel? But then I do not believe that anyone at MLS ever made those remarks. There may be plenty of tangled thinking at MLS, but none that would produce a statement disparaging its own league in this obvious way.

Rather, this is a statement that faithfully reflects British views of American soccer and of MLS. Through those trans-Atlantic eyes, the American soccer scene is such a desert that no one in this country will recognize “the world’s top” stars, who can therefore live comfortably and anonymously. And MLS is an ideal place for aging players “to finish their careers.” An elephant’s graveyard. American soccer, in other words, is not to be taken seriously. Merely a dumping ground for over-the-hill English players, and a nice peaceful, well-paid holiday for them once they get here.

The views expressed are those of a self-appointedly superior soccer culture demeaning American efforts, views from the residents of a country where MLS games get televised, if at all, in the middle of the night.

To imagine someone, anyone, from MLS advocating such a view of the league is simply nonsensical. This is an English version of MLS, one that ought to have disappeared long ago -- after all, MLS now has a 17-year history to contradict those Brit imputations that it is a rinky-dink setup.

The only difficulty that arises from this is that MLS apparently does not feel itself strong enough to tell the Brits where they can put their criticism. Or simply to tell them that, until they know what they’re talking about, they should shut up.

26 comments about "On making it difficult to Americanize soccer".
  1. Mark Buehler, January 29, 2013 at 6:36 p.m.

    Some good points Mr. Gardner. I hope you will include them in your next monthly article in World Soccer Magazine so your British readers will hear your opinion as well. If you're unwilling to do that, then perhaps it's because you don't want to offend your British which case, perhaps we Americans should take your advice about "telling the Brits where they can put their criticism" and begin with you, since you were born there.

  2. Allan Lindh, January 29, 2013 at 6:40 p.m.

    Dr Mr Gardner
    Do you ever think of the young soccer players you are ranting about as, you know, "people." If they go to college they get an education, meet some nice girls, have a chance to grow up, and have a chance of making a living if they don't make it as professional athletes -- which is about 99.9% of them.
    On the other hand if they go straight into a pro team, they have very little chance of earning a decent living, even for a few years, and very poor prospects for a decent job after their "career." They often don't grow into whole human beings, in many cases can barely construct whole sentences, and one can only imagine how they end up in life. For example, Ryan Nelsen was arguably the best defender ever in MLS, after completing his degree in Economics I believe at Stanford, and went on to a solid career in the EPL, and is now an MLS coach. Landon Donovan on the other hand went straight into pro soccer, is burned out at 30, and is -- if you will forgive me -- apparently somewhat immature. As a whole, I am willing to bet a case of Gledfiddich that if one compares across the board the quality of life of those kids who go into the FA system in England at a young age, and those who go into the US college system, the kids in the US go on to have better incomes, better lives, better marriages -- are better people. So what if the US isn't the number 1 ranked soccer nation in the world -- that isn't the most important thing in the world -- in fact, it doesn't even make the top 100 list.

  3. bgix , January 29, 2013 at 6:59 p.m.

    This BS is one of the reason Mr Gardner is a laughingstock amongst most American soccer fans, including hard core MLS fans.

    He operates under the delusion that the only way North America will accept soccer is to "Americanize" it. He calls it snobbery when folks announcing the US game use English idioms when describing the game, and completely misses the point of why we, the fans, actually like soccer, and even call it Football on occasion. IT IS THE WORLDS GAME. It ceased being Englands game probably about the same time Mr Gardener left those shores. Rather than hinder, it helps the game domestically to use a common language when describing the game in England, Spain, Brazil or the USA.

    The LAST thing most of us want is an Americanized version. We WANT to play with the same rules, call things like shut-outs "Clean Sheets", and not have the clock count down. Why? Because that is the way the entire world plays the game.... Not because that is how England plays the game.

    We already have different lingo for different sports... Basketball, baseball, (American) football, Tennis, Golf. Should we say Tiger Woods is 5 points behind Earnie Els? No, that would be stupid. Should we say Venus Williams is beating her sister Serena 2-0, or 30-Love? The answer should be obvious.

    We make adjustments to Reality: Drafts, and "Football" vs "Soccer" because either there are not equivalent terms already in use by the game, or in the local vernacular, the name was already taken.

    Please stop trying to "Americanize" the game. It is not a problem, and as such, does not need to be solved. We are proud to watch MLS and root, not for "an American Equivalent", but for the "Worlds Game".

  4. Liam Walden, January 29, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.

    great evaluation mr. gardner! let's add american commentary ONLY to all soccer games shown on tv in the us and we should be half way there.

  5. Wolfgang Woischke, January 29, 2013 at 7:07 p.m.


  6. John Soares, January 29, 2013 at 8:03 p.m.

    Totally agree with your take on the "English" terminology. It's bull. Sorry bgix but you miss the point. Probably intentionally. No one wants to change the game, only the words/description. AND NO you will never hear the word "pitch" or "clean sheet" in Spain or Brazil. Also they "cheer" not "root". So stop changing things:). I do however disagree with your college assessment. In any country and/or sport the great majority of young players never make it to the pros. College is still a great venue. Let the kids play!

  7. Kent Pothast, January 29, 2013 at 8:15 p.m.

    I realize that this is totally unimportant but how did the on-screen graphics for American sports show the home team second in order while Europe puts the home team first. One can eventually figure out who home team is, but how did this come about?

  8. John Soares, January 29, 2013 at 8:29 p.m.

    Kent, while no doubt someone will provide a more "English" answer.
    In Europe. Team A "hosts" Team B. Therefore is listed first.
    In the USA. Team B visits team A. Therefore is listed first. Now the question is; Should the host indeed be first.... good luck with that one!

  9. Jacob Wang, January 29, 2013 at 8:35 p.m.

    Would love to see Soccer America write a piece about this in its European soccer preview

  10. Charles O'Cain, January 29, 2013 at 9:38 p.m.

    What total BS. For an ex-pat Brit to instruct us on the linguistics of sport is imperialistic to say the least. Soccer/Football is an international sport to which the US has come lately, and eventually one in which it will excel, given the talent pool upon which we have to draw. But we don't have to "Americanize" it linguistically or judicially (and shouldn't). Nil-nil doesn't have to be zero-zero, a draw doesn't have to be a tie, a clean sheet doesn't have to be a shutout, and soccer and football can be used interchangeably without defiling the Constitution or riling the Tea Party. As in baseball, young prospects should choose between college and other developmental leagues for soccer based on their particular circumstances and aspirations (grounded in the reality as previously noted that very few will succeed at the professional sport level). What exactly would Mr Gardner propose as the ideal "American" route to professional MLS? And what is his prescription for those who fail to make the grade? Where is the antidote to exploitation? As for the commentaries, let's stick with English terms for British events (EPL); for MLS, use Americanisms if they provide some advantage, but don't be afraid to use English terms if they more accurately describe the action (golf doesn't seem to mind).

  11. Andres Yturralde, January 29, 2013 at 11:27 p.m.

    Let it go, PG. Just let it go.

  12. Kent James, January 30, 2013 at 12:16 a.m.

    PG, poking that wasps nest again. Although I think language is important to convey meaning, in this case, I generally don't care as much what terms the commentators are using as I care about what they're actually trying to convey. However, there are limits. The question is are people adopting English terminology in an innocent attempt to speak what they consider to be the native language of the country they're visiting, in which case the natives appreciate their attempt? Or are they pretentious jerks who think they are suddenly knowledgeable soccer aficionados simply because they throw around a few terms? Context is everything.

  13. Kent Pothast, January 30, 2013 at 12:24 a.m.

    As I remember it from when I lived in England, the story is this. In the distant past there where two types of football, Rugby (the college) Rules football and Association Rules football. With the English love of playing with names, the took "soc" out of the middle of association and called it soccer. Why do the American get blamed for the word rather than the English? Besides, I see the word soccer all over Europe on a regular basis.

  14. Stevie G, January 30, 2013 at 2:26 a.m.

    Gardner's anti-British diatribe just goes on and on like the Energizer bunny. Ridiculous. Give it a rest. One must really question the SA editors for allowing this to continue.

    Shut-out. Clean-sheet. One-nil. One-to-zero. Everyone knows all the meanings. Who cares?

    If one were to criticize FOX or ESPN it might not be a bad idea to start with the ridiculous oversize graphics that somehow always seem to pop up when ball is in the lower part of the screen... instantly recognizable by the generalized American sports fan, but incredibly frustrating to the average soccer fan. But, as frustrating as that is, I'm not writing blogs to complain about it, and I'll still watch it all day long.

  15. Emilio AlHaq, January 30, 2013 at 6:40 a.m.

    Gardner, first, the US is not America. The vast majority of people that live in the continent despise the US and the disgraceful way it has helped to implant/support corrupt regimes with pro-US agendas. Second, two of the three players that could make the switch to the US in the future you described as “(hardly an irresistible trio, I’d say)” – Michael Carrick earlier this year ranked number four across the top five European leagues for passing accuracy, Ashley Cole, undoubtedly an unpleasant character, is still widely acknowledged amongst football writers and supporters (at least in Europe) as one of the best left backs in the world - both are still playing for top Premier League sides. Third, good luck ‘Americanising’ a sport the British have already taken around the world. Fourth, this paragraph from USA Today Sports about US viewership of the most important MLS game says it all: “The NBA finals drew a 10.1 rating, which was a mild disappointment. The 2.7 rating for the Stanley Cup Finals proved a major disappointment. Both obliterated the MLS Cup Final, which drew an 0.8 rating. Just looking at soccer, the MLS Cup Final was outdrawn by the UEFA Champions League Final and by the Euro 2012 Final. It attracted fewer viewers than a replay of a Chelsea vs. Liverpool EPL match shown the same day.” Gardner, you are right on one thing, the British are not interested in this 17-year old league (like most people in the US judging by the viewing figures) – there are toilets in British stadiums with more history.

  16. Albert Harris, January 30, 2013 at 9:46 a.m.

    Glad you kept politics out of it, Emilio! LOL

  17. R2 Dad, January 30, 2013 at 12:01 p.m.

    I think everyone is giving TV ratings too much credit. TV is so old-school, and the youths who play soccer have shown a distinct preference for entertainment beyond their parent's standard box in the living room. Phones, game consoles, the internet. For all the focus on advertising in this country (OK, it's the only growth-industry left in the US), why are TV ratings still such a big deal?
    Oh, and Mr. Gardner. You, sir, are a big whinging wanker.

  18. Andrea Hana, January 30, 2013 at 12:45 p.m.

    Paul, not all MLS teams go for the "old sock", as you have described. I live in the NW and am naturally a Sounders fan. Unlike some clubs who go out for the "retired" players from foreign leagues, in general, we tend to go for the unearthed talents of either domestic or foreign origin. Unfortunately, we tend to be a "farm team", in that our GM's don't put out the $$$$ to keep contracts with the apparently good players that we groom. (A typical trait of these Seattle franchise owners that irritates most of the deserving fans of the NW!) We, a known group of fervent fans here, don't give a hoot about the EPL, in general, any more than Bundesliga or Serie A. This nonsense about terminology you present seems a poor attempt at wanting to appear sympathetic to the Americans, while actually maintaining your conceited, imperialistic view of the MLS! When are the foreigners going to get it? WE DON'T CARE WHAT OTHERS THINK! THAT'S what the US is all about! Snide remarks from a British tabloid won't change that. We don't care WHAT they think!

  19. Joseph Pratt, January 30, 2013 at 3:03 p.m.

    I don't know, Paul, it seems like you're trying to tackle two distinct issues at the same time. The first, the use of English idioms by TV announcers, is so trivial as to be laughable. Who really cares?
    The second is one that deserves much more attention, the notion that college soccer is poor preparation for the pro game. Do you care to elaborate on that? I would be interested in reading an expanded discussion on why you think that is the case. I'm not necessarily disagreeing, just curious what your views are.

  20. Jake Brodesky, January 30, 2013 at 4:55 p.m.

    There is no doubt that some soccer people have a preoccupation with the Brits, one being Paul Gardner.

    But of the list "all that is wrong with American soccer," this is middle of the road stuff.

  21. Chris Morris, January 30, 2013 at 8:27 p.m.

    As an author of dictionaries, I have a professional as well as a soccer interest in Paul Gardner’s ongoing complaints about the use of British terminology in the U.S. game. Interestingly he has his curmudgeonly counterparts in Britain, who complain about the way U.S. concepts such as “save” and “assist” have become established in their game.
    In either case, the language will go where it wants, and Mr. Gardner has no more ability to make our announcers say “cleats” instead of “studs” than old-school Brits have to stop their statisticians from recording “assists.”

  22. Peter Skouras, February 3, 2013 at 12:49 a.m.

    Our National Teams is the measure...let's see what happens with qualification...Olympic Team failed, U-20's and Full National Teams trying to qualify for World Cups...That's all...plain and simple! Results!

  23. Ramon Creager, February 3, 2013 at 10:37 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more with this, as I watch another dreadful performance by referee Howard Webb (complete with blood). The EPL is not a very good league, something their own teams are recognizing as they reinforce themselves with more and more French, African and Spanish talent. Unfortunately MLS is not helping itself by selling off its young talent as soon as it's obvious they have some value--even if it does seem to give them some sort of perverted pride. The loss of Andy Najar for such a pittance cannot possibly make DC United a better team, especially given the effort put into developing him. Ditto for the loss of Brek Shea. This is very disappointing. When United lost De Ro yes, they kept winning, but they were truly awful to watch. And I really can't say any other team was much easier on the eyes (esp. the pedestrian Houston Dynamo, which excel in the defensive, don't lose style.) Unfortunately MLS don't have the money to buy talent like Ba, Kone, Sissoko, Mata, Cazorla, Monreal, etc. Lacking that, we must keep our good young players if this league is to get better.

  24. Peter Skouras, February 3, 2013 at 7:26 p.m.

    Hey, the league schedule will go on "forever" this season...for what? The playoffs? A Championship? What's the deal with the rest of the table...they're just playing to play? Play for what? Not going down that's for sure! In other words..."boring...! In other words, the players who will be in "no mans land" will not be pressured in any way (other than getting cut or traded.!) Around the world, leagues entire table is challenged throughout the season thus "everyone" is sharp including front office! Personally, I think the USL and MLS are getting ready for a "true" 2nd see how the markets go with this "Reserve League." They better do something quick because, personally, the league lacks! I am enclosing a few articles about American Soccer and how it'll be amazed. Take care.

  25. Jamie Nicewander, February 26, 2013 at 2:39 p.m.

    Interesting points, should be noted and taken into consideration by the Foxsoccer staff, as i think they will...but that doesn't mean they have to change anything.

    On the college soccer conundrum.....well there is a viable alternative..listen..

    With Charter schools being easier and easier to establish, I am shocked that more MLS teams are not creating satelite academies (ex; mini academy schools in far reaching areas across the united states. Under most Charter school regulations the State would pay for all of the educational needs, (which by the way, after nearly 20 years in education, I can see distance learning and online classes replacing almost all staff in such a charter school), and the MLS team would just have to support the athletic side. It is a very small, low risk investment. It would create talent (each team academy has first rights to contact etc.)and a fan base across the united states for each team, as well as spur on local community teams to step up their game. This could grab young talent before they are corrupted by football, basketball in high schools that typically don't care about soccer programs. I live right on the border and the talent is amazing but there is no investment in the youth in that direction. These don't have to be huge sprawling facilities, there are so many free and city supported amenities that it could be done very cheaply. I really think Academies are where U.S. soccer needs to place its attention.

    I must say, I am glad to have FOXSOCCER.

  26. Diego Maradona, March 12, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.

    More English speakers world wide call it Soccer than Football.

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