When debating American soccer's future, consider each generation's experiences

“What you say about his company is what you say about society,” intoned Geddy Lee (singing the late Neil Peart’s lyrics) on the Rush classic Tom Sawyer.

Elsewhere, what you say about soccer is where you’ve lived in society. And when.

That’s one undercurrent of the interminable discussion about the state of MLS or about promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer. Where you’re from and when you were born may determine a lot of your views on the matter.

MLS is now old enough that a substantial portion of the U.S. population can’t remember a time without it. Call them Millennials, Gen Z, Zoomers or whatever you like. Gen X was the MTV generation, for better or for worse. Gen Z is the MLS generation, for better or for worse.

The younger generations have a wider lens on society than previous generations. They’re more diverse, thanks to immigration patterns that no longer feature many Europeans. They also have access to broadcasts and content that previous generations did not.

Little wonder, then, that so many of them are soccer fans. It’s easier to support a sport when you can see it every once in a while and when you’re surrounded by people who share your interests or, at the very least, aren’t hostile to them.

The hostility is what this generation doesn’t remember. Americans didn’t just ignore soccer. They hated it. In their eyes, this was a sport for socialists who were too cowardly to play American football. When the NASL collapsed, the only soccer we had was generously described as “semipro” or accurately described as “indoor.”

The Millennizoomers missed out on this time in the wilderness. Younger journalists in particular don’t have the perspective of us old folks who dealt with editors scoffing at their desires to write about this sport.

Generational distinctions don’t explain everything, of course. Geographical distinctions were also important. When I lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, just before the emergence of the Hammerheads, soccer fans were underground. If you lived in New York or Los Angeles, your experience may be different. By the mid-90s, when I lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, I could join a handful of people paying to see a Premier League broadcast at a local bar, but upon moving to the D.C. metro area, I could go to the legendary Summers Restaurant and watch everything from England to Africa.

These experiences shape expectations. Those of us from Generation X who grew up in the South are still amazed that soccer has taken root in this country as firmly as it has. Those from younger generations or more cosmopolitan areas are less surprised, and they’re more likely to be disappointed in the state of the game today.

When it comes to the past, some things are incontrovertible. U.S. soccer was in horrible shape through much of the 20th century. The collapse of the original American Soccer League in 1933 left a gaping void, and that was reflected in national team results. Multiple presidential administrations came and went without U.S. men’s wins, and decades passed between wins over a team outside Concacaf.

The NASL had a few years of popularity, specifically in a few cities, but it didn’t last. The reasons for its collapse are subject to debate, but nonetheless, it disappeared, and further investment in outdoor soccer was nearly nonexistent for nearly a decade.

Given that history, it’s difficult to dispute that soccer needed a kickstart in this country. Fortunately, an uptick of interest in youth soccer yielded a deeper talent pool, and the U.S. took fourth in the 1989 U-20 World Cup, a foreshadowing of half-decent results in international tournaments. The 1994 World Cup on home soil demonstrated a pent-up interest in watching soccer. The U.S. needed a league, and MLS easily won the competition for Division 1 status.

That’s the past. The future is up for more debate, with a specific question: “Is MLS, as currently constructed, best suited to harness the growth of soccer in this country?” MLS has further complicated things with a new joint competition with Mexico and a new “reserves plus some others” league that adds to the incoherence of the country’s lower divisions.

Related: “Is the NWSL, as currently constructed, best suited to harness the growth of women’s soccer in this country?”

Plenty of paths forward are on offer. Several years ago, veteran soccer executive Peter Wilt suggested a combined MLS/Mexico top division in a promotion/relegation structure. Maybe traditional promotion/relegation is still off the table as far as MLS owners are concerned, but could the Leagues Cup morph into an annual qualification-based competition? Will the hints of promotion/relegation in lower divisions, which was contemplated all the way back in the 1990s but never fully implemented because team owners often needed to relegate themselves out of economic necessity, ever take root? Should MLS, which has incrementally modified its single-entity central control over the years, toss its complex salary restrictions out the window?

In women’s soccer, the questions are different. Dealing with the aftermath of a scandal-ridden year is priority one, but reaching a collective bargaining agreement with players is a close second. Many fans/journalists enthusiastically agree with the notion of paying players much better, but can revenue keep pace? (Soaring ratings will help, of course.)

As with a lot of generational arguments, the biggest question here may not be the end goal but the pace of how to get there. Will the NWSL pay six-figure salaries in 10 years, or should the soccer community press hard to make it happen before then? Should fully professional men’s soccer extend to hundreds of municipalities within 10 years, or is that something that has to evolve more slowly?

Boomers and Gen Xers may be more risk-averse, remembering how fragile U.S. soccer has been in their lifetimes. Younger generations may be less patient.

No generation is completely right or completely wrong. But their experiences are all worthwhile, and any discussion of where to go from here should take that into account.

6 comments about "When debating American soccer's future, consider each generation's experiences".
  1. Peter Bechtold, January 5, 2022 at 2:14 p.m.

    Interesting article, Beau. I,too, sat through many a match at Summers in NoVa(:-). But your history could go back further when soccer in the US was played in leagues where about 90% of the players, referees and spectators had European accents, and Sportswriters here declared it to be "foreign". I had played in leagues in Oregon and New Jersey where  my university clubs were the only "integrated" teams.
    Like so many others, I coached my son's "traveling" teams in competitive large metropolitan areas where almost all players and spectators came from middle-class suburban backgrounds. Good enough for highschool teams in the '80s, but not for grander objectives. Many suburban mothers saw soccer as a wholesome sport which was safer than American "Football" and also cost less. In the Washington,D.C. area the NCSL had over 200k players enrolled.
    Thanks to Sunil Gulati, the longtime US resident J.Klinsmann was brought into the US mix from his home in SoCal and he insisted that American soccer must include more players of "colour" from "hardscrabble" backgrounds. Looking at the 2021 versions, this has been accomplished on the MNT's side, but not yet on the WNT. Onward.

  2. Ric Fonseca, January 5, 2022 at 2:40 p.m.

    Mr. Dure: A good "historical of soccer in the USA," hen I arrived to the US as a nine year I could'nt fine a kids team to play futbo, but played a somewhat convoluted form of the game in the school playground, sort of like kickball played on a baseball diamond.Moving on, even in junior high and then high school, the only teams I ever heard of were the local Mexican immigrant teams, Guadalajara, Pumas, And still no fields, other than football fields rented out and of course the more teams in San Francisco. I also remember when the PE teachers didn;t want us to play on their sanctified fields because we'd ruin them!Fast forwar when the Oakland Clippers came to town in Oakland, and my being declared ineligible to play for then Cl St Hayward (now CSU East Bay) 'cause I'd been going to colleg far too long notwithstanding my military service of 3-years), but did manage the team and became an unpaid team manager for two years.  Then my move to UCLA - more on this in another comment) and my own children playing youth rec soccer (ayso) then club and a sting as local club president and then CYSAA District Commissioner.  And the growth of our sport in the Greater L.A. area?  I was truly amazed then, "official and unaffiliated leagues right and left, Latino-Hispanic, the Greater L.A. League, and boom of collegiate soccer, following in the mid-late 70's of womens teams and their inclusion by the local ayso powere I was present when discussions of the MLS birth were taking place at one of the WC USA Headquarters - some names later - and I was even interviewed about the future of the MLS.; I was also present when the old NASL had the LA Aztecs, when they moved their home field from the Rose Bowl to the LA Coliseum, and thus because of my previous involvement in the sport in the LA area, expanded, the first teams were born e.g. LAG, their first administrators, their first game, etc. etc. But just the same, the growth of our sport - and yes I must say this, no thanks to some of the former members of the US Soccer Coaching schools, who called some;"foreign players," and asked who'd want to play with some "scrubs?Oh Jeez, there is one helluva lot to tell, but lest I digress, thanks aqain Mr. Dure for your historical vignette about the growth of our sport. Oh, but wait, quite frankly, I don't recall the ani-soccer guys say that our sport had "political connections," as you've alluded above, other than to say, why have a bunch of guys run around dressed in shorts and kick a ball, the scoring is abysmal, can't even carry the ball, I am wont to say to this, that it was in the mid 19th century when those staid Englishmen partaking in a sport called ruby decided to have the village ruffians play football, while "gentlemen" play rugby.; Oh, there is so much more to tell....; PLAY ON!!!

  3. Chuck Snavely, January 5, 2022 at 3:45 p.m.

    Really interesting article that I feel in my Gen X bones. Growing up in the 70s & 80s in Milwaukee, EVERY kid played soccer. Either through the huge youth org Milwaukee Kickers, or the well-established nationality affiliated league. (Milwaukee Bavarians is most famous, but there was also United Serbians, Croatian Eagles, Verdi, Polska, etc.)
    But after high school, all us thousands of kids had few avenues to continue playing, or even watching the game. 
    Fast forward a couple decades and I'm thrilled my own kids have had the opportunity to play at a high level and continue on if they so choose. (they didn't. sadly.) AND we get to shout our lungs out for the Sounders and Reign for 10 months of the year. And that has been gold for our fam. Really looking forward to what the next decades will bring. For all their faults, MLS and NWSL have definitely put us on the right track.

  4. John Stollmeyer, January 6, 2022 at 8:11 a.m.

    Beau Dure, very interesting aspect to the growth of this game.  Having grown up playing during the 70's and 80's, I have been a part of all those avenues of play.  Good discussions might arise from your commentary.  We old soccer people learn from the new young players and the young can learn from the old.  

  5. Kent James replied, January 7, 2022 at 3:37 p.m.

    John, just curious if you're the Stollmeyer who played at IU and on the national team? I was playing in college in the early 1980s and spent a semester in DC on an internship and was looking for a place to play, and got in touch with Kip Germaine (spelling?) through a local soccer store.  Anyway, he let me train with the Annandale Boys Club adult team, and I remember we played in the basement of a department store (we had to move the tables and chairs to the side, and avoid the concrete pillars that held up the low ceiling), and that you played a couple times (I think you were at IU at the time, and I think I had read about you in Soccer America, so I tried not to be starstruck).  I was impressed with your skill at the time.  That was a time when finding a place to play was not always easy, but if you looked hard enough, you could often find something!

  6. Ron Benson, January 6, 2022 at 2:14 p.m.

    Good information . Agree . I wish there would be more " pickup game opportunities " .
    As a high-school coach and teacher I conducted/supervised off season pickup games on the high school fields . Very popular , even through  the summer. 
    Many students  who were not on the high school soccer teams participated. Lots of fun. 

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