Commentary

The football movement, White House visits, and how everything is relative

FIFA president Gianni Infantino's interview with Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus and the Washington Post's Steven Goff is certainly an eye-opener.

Infantino, who was in Washington along with U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House, questions whether the current structure of American pro soccer is holding it back, saying he believes in promotion and relegation and the freedom of an owner to invest as he or she wishes.

He says MLS and American soccer -- "the league, the football movement in general" -- ranked 20-30 in the world and should be 1, 2 or 3.



We can debate that ranking or the criteria to assess a country's "football movement," but it is hard to argue about the need, as Infantino suggests, for American soccer to take stock of where it's at.

MLS has advanced considerably, growing from 10 to 23 teams and operating an additional 10 teams in the USL and four women's teams in the NWSL, and ranks among the top 10 leagues in the world in attendance. But despite MLS's runaway success in Atlanta or the support in Seattle for the last decade or steady sellouts in places like Portland and Kansas City, there should be serious concern about how some other teams appear to be losing steam in their markets.

All the attention on how Anthony Precourt has engineered to move the Crew to Austin shouldn't take away from the fact that attendance has waned in Columbus, and it isn't the only market.

Though no one has made it work in the U.S. pro market, the topic of promotion and relegation won't go away. At the very least, the movement of "independent" teams continues to grow.

Should MLS be worried? The problem is, no other pro league has ever thrived with such continuous and vocal opposition from segments of what should be its fanbase. If you're not convinced about the anti-MLS sentiment, spend a day on Twitter and read the venom.

However it happens, the "football movement in general," as Infantino called it, must extend outside MLS markets into every corner of the country. Soccer got such a late start it never grabbed a foothold in high school and college communities like football and basketball, in particular, did. Those powerful connections to their pro games simply don't yet exist in American soccer. Some way, some how, they miss take hold.

Everything is relative, though.

The late Ron Newman played or coached in five failed leagues -- NPSL, NASL, ASL, MISL and CISL -- before coming on board to coach the Kansas City Wizards for the launch of MLS, which survives 22 years later. There was no "football movement" in the late 1960s when Newman arrived from England, which makes his work and that of the other pioneers of the late 1960s and 1970s so important.

In Soccer America executive editor Mike Woitalla's tribute to Newman, Clive Toye, another of the pioneers, says if they had any sense at all, they would not have come because it was such a helpless task.

"Ron had no reluctance to tell people about soccer, whether on a Main Street sidewalk or in a field," Toye said. "Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he was trying make people aware of soccer, make people aware of what the game was about, and how they could get involved.”

Awareness is not the problem today it was then -- which explains Infantino's interest in American soccer. The U.S. market is a big money-maker for FIFA. World Cup media rights go for hundreds of millions of dollars. That wasn't always the case.

Toye reminded me of that on Tuesday night, emailing after reading our story on the visit by Infantino and Cordeiro to the Oval Office.

Visitors have been going to the White House to promote soccer for decades -- the first visit I can recall is when Pele met Richard Nixon in 1973 -- but they have long since moved past kicking a soccer ball or trying to explain what the World Cup is. What was most remarkable about Tuesday's reception was how aware Trump was about the World Cup. (It helps that his son, Barron, is a big-time fan.)

That was a bit of a change, noted Toye, from how it used to be. "When Phil Woosnam and I bought the 1970 World Cup TV rights," he wrote, "we could not find one TV channel willing to show games -- even for nothing!"

Yes, everything is relative.

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10 comments about "The football movement, White House visits, and how everything is relative".
  1. beautiful game, August 29, 2018 at 8:55 a.m.

    Infantino has an intellect of an "Infant" with a deep misunderstanding of soccer in America.

  2. frank schoon, August 29, 2018 at 9:41 a.m.

    That we drew 109,000 fans in a little college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan , a couple of years at friendly game between Real Madrid vs Man. Utd...says enough and says it all. For those like myself who were there in the beginning when NASL and the NPSL began had never envisaged something like this, although the attendance at Cosmos games did show the possibilities, then. More and more it's becoming part of our culture and.... the President son playing....and will continue having bumps along the way.
    I'm in no mood to hear these Administrative types pontificating ,for I'm beginning to believe they are becoming more of the problem. The statement this was the "Greatest" world cup ever...in what way, perhaps in security but certainly not in quality of play.
    I hope when the WC is hosted by the US, Mexico and Canada, that the games be played in the evening and NOT during the afternoon in 100degree temperatures; for if that's the case, I'd rather see it played in Europe or South America...


  3. beautiful game replied, August 29, 2018 at 3:30 p.m.

    Frank S....unfortunately many games at WC2026 will be played in the heat because of TV rights and the MONEY. Infantion et al could care less about player welfare and quality soccer. There is no logic when common sense is missing.

  4. Wallace Wade, August 29, 2018 at 10:21 a.m.

    Captain Obvious. This guy doesn’t have any understanding of just what a huge mess our Federation is. The same cadre of buffoons have been running things for decades. Nothing ever changes with these people, never. 

  5. beautiful game replied, August 29, 2018 at 3:32 p.m.

    W.W. Infantino et la is part of the buffoon problem.

  6. Bob Ashpole, August 29, 2018 at 1:21 p.m.

    To some soccer is the world's greatest game. To some soccer is the world's greatest business. FIFA makes billions off players paid by other people. (Sounds a lot like real estate development.) USSF is FIFA in the USA. Cordiero is a rich, retired investment banker. Infantino is a businessman with a law degree. Neither are former coaches or players.

    Guess where their passion lies? So it is only expected that they would push something emotional that sounds to unsophisticated fans like an easy path to billion dollar clubs and international success. Do we really want a league dominated by a few hobby clubs owned by bored billionaires with money to burn?

    I love watching little kids having a ball playing the game. Soccer is much more than just a business. If you know the game, you know it's passion and joy. For the readers here, this is just a reminder of what Cordiero, Infantino and some others are missing.

    Maybe the best solution is simply to send the USSF board of directors on a field trip to watch some little kids playing rec soccer next weekend. No trophies, no tournaments, just kids having fun.    

  7. beautiful game, August 29, 2018 at 3:35 p.m.

    Bob; I would bet that the majority of USSF buffoons you are talking about have never attended a youth game or thought about prosperity in soccer except for the money. 

  8. R2 Dad, August 30, 2018 at 12:12 a.m.

    PK, Twitter self-selects for media types & narsacistic keyboard-pounding internet trolls/politicians--"normal" people don't have Twitter accounts. Twitter has flat-lined on growth:
    https://www.statista.com/statistics/282087/number-of-monthly-active-twitter-users/
    ...and will soon be canibalized by the next new thing. We DO now know the world-wide number of such users: 335 million, which is about 5% of the world population. So I wouldn't get too wound up in what those folks have to say in 140 characters or less...

  9. Dick Burns, September 2, 2018 at 12:45 a.m.

    People who blast US Soccer have not been around to see the growth and development of the game in the USA.  There was a time when we were happy to have 1 hour (Soccer Made in Germany on PBS) a week of TV.  Accept the fact that there is much room for improvement but understand that without adult and youth soccer programs we would not be where we are today.  And by the way, high school and college persist in going their own ways with different rules and no interest in working with world soccer.  No other country that I know of has that problem. That is not a US Soccer problem, it is a culture problem.  

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, September 2, 2018 at 6:43 a.m.

    "People who blast US Soccer have not been around to see the growth and development of the game in the USA." Dick, you must not be talking about people on this forum criticizing USSF, because most of us were involved in the sport long before the US qualified for the 1990 finals.

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