I first met my girlfriend at a bar during the 2021 European championship final, when Italy eked out a victory against England on penalty kicks. We have not watched a single soccer—football, for most of the rest of the planet—game since then, either separately or together. Perhaps the sport has given us everything it possibly can, and it is a waste of time and emotion to try to get anything more out of it. Or maybe our relationship with the sport isn’t so unique. Most Americans experience soccer as a foreign folkway that intrudes briefly into our general awareness every two to four years, sticking around just long enough to become tedious.
Millions of Americans will watch a small handful of games during the upcoming World Cup in Qatar—or at least we’ll watch when American football isn’t on. After a new world champion is crowned, and in many cases well before then, we will happily go about our lives until we feel semi-obligated to care about soccer again, another two or four years from now. In 2010, the World Cup stretch run overlapped with a nail-biting NBA finals, in which Kobe Bryant willed the Lakers to victory in a classic game 7 against Kevin Garnett’s Boston Celtics. Only a sophist or a lunatic could possibly have thought the turgid Spain-Netherlands World Cup final that occurred the same week was the more exciting of the two battles.
America has been notoriously slow to adopt soccer, as if soccer is our problem, rather than the rest of the world’s problem. But we aren’t really so unique, are we? Soccer isn’t unambiguously the top sport in any of the three most populous countries on earth. The Chinese, representing one-fifth of the human race, are basketball lovers who dominate at gymnastics and table-tennis; in India, home to another quintile of humanity, street kids construct wickets out of loose concrete. In America, National Basketball Association players are cross-platform celebrities and the National Football League is among the last surviving cultural institutions that hold our febrile society together. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer is barely on television and even fairly serious sports fans might fail to name a single player on the US Men’s National Soccer Team.
A decades-long campaign to shove soccer down American throats simply hasn’t worked. Why? One reason, aside from the sport being boring, is because we’re bad at it. The US leads the medal count in nearly every summer Olympics. Any decline in international basketball prowess is treated as a shocking disgrace. Our National Hockey League is the world’s leader, even if most of the players are foreigners. Baseball is so ingrained in the national character that it almost doesn't matter whether we’re the best at it anymore (pound-for-pound, the tiny Dominican Republic has us beat). Nobody else plays football, except a few Samoans. Do we really have room for a fifth national sport?
Because Americans don’t win at soccer, and because our domestic league isn’t very good, there is nothing about the sport that has been sentimentalized or preserved in our national memory. The American past is a sprawling chronicle of the great and the absurd, and it features not a single soccer-related event of any real national consequence. American soccer has no Jesse Owens, no Miracle on Ice, no Ping-Pong diplomacy. The only soccer player most Americans over 40 can name is Pele.
I guess there’s Brandi Chastain’s sports bra, a key feature of the indelible moment in 1999 when the Women’s National Team defender ripped her shirt off after scoring a penalty kick in the World Cup final against China, clinching the tournament for the United States. Yet the psychological impact of the USWNT’s various triumphs has been curiously minimal, given their on-field success over the past 25 years. There is a national women’s soccer league, but it has almost no profile.
That the USWNT’s wins have done so little for the cause of soccer as a mass-cultural phenomenon in America isn’t owing to sexism, as the tiny minority of do-gooding American women’s soccer fans (some of whom are reportedly men) is wont to claim. It’s because of the lack of any distinct American soccer culture for these triumphs to build upon. Baseball, football, and basketball have a thick folklore; even hockey, which unlike the other three was not invented in America, has a mystique forged in iced-over Minnesota lakes and drunken brawls at the Philly Spectrum. In contrast, MLS “ultras” are half-hearted low-budget cosplay versions of their European and Latin American forebears. Inasmuch as there is an authentically American soccer culture, it is an elite one, emerging out of upscale suburban travel teams and half-empty stadiums on northeastern college campuses—but also a lower-class one, defined by scenes of Spanish-speaking immigrants gathering at nightfall at dusty fields in public parks on the edges of major cities. It is a sport of Potomac, Maryland, and the sport of the people who cut the lawns in Potomac, Maryland. The vast American middle has no soccer to call its own.
Almost everything worth knowing about America can be explained through football, basketball, and baseball. By comparison, soccer explains almost nothing—which is another way of saying that soccer isn’t loved here because of its fundamental foreignness. Soccer, a potential distraction from the higher calling of football and basketball, is the preferred sport of Europe, the eternal American antithesis. It’s the medium for neofascist hooliganism and the brilliantly oiled machine of “total football,” and thus joins centuries of continental darkness to a dead and dreary European post-history. Germany is really good at soccer—could there possibly be a more damning indictment of the game, or of anything?
Soccer is also the all-consuming passion of every country to America’s south, and carries a queasy whiff of social chaos, far left- and right-wing populist dictatorships, multinational narco-trafficking, and caravans of desperate people heading north.
Americans eschew soccer for the same reasons we refuse to be Europeans—we don’t have universal government healthcare, but we also aren’t a stagnant and exhausted society that started two world wars. We aren’t them, thank God. We don’t want to be them.
The American attitude toward soccer comes from a healthy will to be different. And yet our soccer allergy also springs from a certain lingering xenophobia and quasi-nationalism. Our attitude toward the sport is tied to a corrosive national instinct of ignoring what’s right in front of us, whether it’s a homeless encampment or a cramped slum’s worth of Guatemalan laborers spread across the pitch, desperate for free air and recreation.
Americans, like any other group of people, are the sum total of the things we reject. You can keep your soccer, or football, or whatever you call it. We have enough problems here at home.