A few months ago, Bill Simmons had ESPN soccer announcer Rob Stone as a guest on his radio show to talk soccer – a rarity on the Sports Guy’s show. Listening to Simmons trip over soccer concepts and names made ardent soccer supporters cringe. But he admitted during the segment, soccer wasn’t his bag.
Stone attempted to persuade Simmons of the sport’s innate appeal. He dared Simmons to go to Mexico City for the World Cup qualifier. Simmons laughed, but accepted the challenge. Stone warned him, it would be like no other sporting experience in his life. Simmons said he was up to it, and promised Stone he’d go.
As the game approached, I wondered out loud with a buddy of mine (and loyal Simmons’ follower) if he thought Simmons would make good on his pledge of heading south of the border.
He did. And to no one’s surprise, the trip was an eye-opener for ESPN’s top writing talent (Rick Reilly needs to stop shopping at Gap Kids for T-shirts and start brushing up on avoiding cliches and re-writing old columns). Simmons’ account truly is a must read for any soccer fan.
Stone warned his ESPN colleague of the dangers Mexico City presents for an American during a soccer match. And Simmons’ wife seemed prepared for the worst:
“Have you ever gone on a trip where your wife said to you beforehand, ‘I think you should make a will’?”
I’ve experienced Mexico vs. USA twice in person. One was a World Cup qualifier, the other was the 2007 Gold Cup final. Both were played in the U.S. And harassment of the vastly outnumbered American fans is an experience one has to see for themselves. I can only imagine what it would have been like in the Devil’s Den – in Ciudad de Mexico.
“Have you ever had someone tell you in all seriousness, ‘We don’t want to sit in the stands, we would get hit by bags of urine”? Ever mention wanting to wear your team’s jersey into another team’s stadium and have someone answer without a trace of humor, ‘You should just wear a jersey that says ‘KILL ME’? This was like a cross between a Raiders game and the Pistons crowd at the tail end of the Artest melee, only if it had lasted three straight hours.”
After Simmons describes the rabid atmosphere his column begins to illustrate his burgeoning understanding of the game. It depicts a die-heard sports fan just beginning to grasp what one of the most niched sporting communities has known and appreciated for years. Soccer is a beautiful game. It just needs to be given a fair shot rather than be dismissed as a recreational sport our kids play.
What many older soccer curmudgeons don’t understand is that there is a generation of young Americans who grew up playing soccer. Sure, they may not have stuck with it in hopes of a professional career, but they played it nonetheless. Soccer is the No. 1 sport played among America’s youth. Not just the world. But America. More than 4.3 million kids played soccer frequently (at least 52 days a year) according to a survey by American Sports Data, Inc.
There is a generation of young adults who grew up playing the game and are familiar with its rules and concepts. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago. Add the ingrained love for the sport by the nation’s high immigrant population and there’s a perfect storm for the sport in the States.
The U.S.’s recent emergence is a much welcomed sight for loyal American soccer fans. The sport is finally getting its due. ESPN has amped up its coverage of the sport, even shelling out big bucks to air weekly English Premier League games.
Colin Cowherd, another ESPN personality who made making fun of soccer part of his schtick, has seen the light. And he can’t explain it. Did all it take was two games for the entire nation to take note of the sport. Most people couldn’t give a damn when the U.S. were losing to Italy and Brazil in the first two games of the Confederations Cup, but after a win against world No. 1 Spain and a thrilling final against Brazil, it seems everyone and their mother has jumped on the soccer bandwagon (though I expect Jim Rome will be the final convert).
It’s been a long and frustrating time coming, but finally us soccer fans, followers of a “loser sport with no scoring,” can hold our head up high.