For the first time since 1986, the United States Men’s Team failed to qualify for the World Cup. In their absence, who will American fans support?
October 10, 2017. Just seeing that date written out triggers involuntary bowel movements. For those of you with better things to do than follow American soccer (yes, soccer), that fateful Tuesday saw the US fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in over 30 years, losing to an already-eliminated Trinidad and Tobago.
With the US absent, will the traditionally self-centered Americans tune out from the largest sporting event in global history? Unlikely. As of April 2018, American residents are the highest ticket purchasing country after hosts Russia. The final is also expected to be the highest watched televised sport event after the Super Bowl.
But who will all these Americans be looking to watch? Well, that depends on which subset of fans we’re talking about. And while these groups are generalities with plenty of room for intersection, the majority of Americans following the World Cup will fit into at least one of these camps, presented here in no particular order:
Not so shockingly, soccer is popular in many immigrant and greater diaspora communities. This offers one valid explanation as to why 2018 World Cup ticket sales are still high. While many outside the country believe these are the only people who watch soccer in the US, immigrant diasporas were also around in the 1980s, when the American soccer market was nowhere near what it is today.
In reality, as soccer gradually became popular in mainstream American culture, opportunities to both play and follow the sport grew exponentially. This increase in exposure led to the sport developing a cultural vantage point beyond a simple connection to an ethnic or national community. Many of these are 2nd-4thgeneration Americans who barely know five words in their ancestral mother tongue, and most generally support the US. But with the Yanks absent, why not celebrate their heritage and participate in some good old-fashioned right-wing nationalism?
Main teams supported: every country in the World Cup has a community in the US. Larger ones include Mexico, Poland, and South Korea.
Current and former players.
This is a massive group, particularly within the millennial generation. According to the US Soccer Federation, over 24.4 million men and women have played some level of organized soccer, including nearly 5 million current youth-club players. While not everyone in this group follows the sport closely, they are more than familiar with famous players and often tune in to watch big games.
Main teams supported: clearly the most established reputations, including Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar…err…Argentina, Portugal, and Brazil.
FIFA 2018 Douchebags.
Who needs exercise when you have e-sports? Who needs an analytic framework when game developers assign numerical values to qualitative assessments? Everyone of a certain age has met a FIFA 2018 douchebag: the passionate fan who knows more than everyone, yet whose only experience is literally twiddling their thumbs on a joystick. Invite this person out for a casual pickup (kickabout) game on a Sunday afternoon, and their mysterious hamstring injury from the last time they played 6 years ago returns (besides they have a scheduled 3 pm match against xz_idrinkpiss_69). Don’t get me wrong, they don’t only play FIFA: they’ll gladly watch Champions League with you…and proceed to call successful athletes like Gonzalo Higuain “trash” and breakdown why he has a “shitty first touch.” These assholes were raised in the US, yet reject American players and refuse to watch MLS “out of principle.” Ask them their favorite club, and there is a 100% chance it is Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona, or Real Madrid.
Main teams supported: France, Spain, Argentina, Brazil (or whoever has the highest ranking on FIFA that week)
The American Soccer Fan.
Between qualifying for the 1990 World Cup for the first time in decades, hosting it in 1994, and the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996, the 90s were pivotal for the development of American supporters. True, the MLS sits behind Europe’s top leagues in both prestige and quality, but it has exponentially improved as well as developed passionate mainstream fan bases throughout the country (the average game attendance for Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United is higher than all but five teams in England).
While the focus of this article has been on the men’s World Cup, no discussion on American soccer culture would be complete without acknowledging the vital role of the US Women’s National Team, winning three of seven World Cups and never finishing below third place. We can attribute much of the on-field success to the US having a more robust women’s development program (and overall attitude towards women’s sports) than in most of the world. More importantly, it established a standard of excellence and high expectations for anyone wearing an American crest, regardless of gender. Top women stars such as Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Hope Solo have equal to (if not higher) mainstream recognition than men like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Christian Pulisic.
All this led to the development of the American Outlaws, the US national team’s profanity-laced traveling ultra supporters, who form the backbone of the American fan base.
Main teams supported – This group primarily cares about overall American prestige, and wants to see the success of local US rivals, teams with MLS players, and countries whose domestic leagues have American players: Mexico, Germany, England, Costa Rica, Panama.
The “I studied abroad and am more worldly than you” club.
Find any soccer bar in America, and you’ll recognize them instantly: the white suburban kids who hated sports growing up, but fell in love with the game while watching Saprissa in a smoke-filled room in San Juan. The non-ironic fashion-scarf-wearing-in-the-middle-of-summer, pseudo-cosmopolitan bunch that insist on correcting you every time you say “soccer” by pronouncing “fútbol” like their host family in Montevideo (despite it being a Spanishized version of the English word “football” meaning neither “foot” nor “ball” in Spanish). While the term “study abroad” is specific to students, it can be interchanged with “backpacking while finding themselves,” “volunteering while finding themselves,” “teaching English while finding themselves,” or “had a passionate escapade with a gorgeous international before succumbing to eventual linguistic and/or cultural differences while finding themselves.” On the plus side, they willingly admit to not understanding tactics, and will often share fun anecdotes of vomiting on ayahuasca while visiting a shaman outside Macchu Picchu.
Main teams supported: Peru, Senegal, Morocco, Costa Rica and any other country with a robust history of colonial occupation and 20thcentury Western intervention.
The soccer hipster.
Usually a combination of several of the groups, the hipster is often analytically savvy, with a taste for bold predictions and “authentic” individuality. This person generally follows the game closely, but also refuses to wear any soccer apparel unless at a stadium or sports bar. He/she will talk your ear off about how Chelsea stepped on their own dicks when getting rid of Mohamed Salah, all while ordering a delicious IPA from an obscure, but up-and-coming microbrewery from New Hampshire. The hipster supports clubs often near the relegation zone or recently emergent powers without Khaliji/Russian/Chinese financial backing.
Main teams supported: any underdog with high risk, but maximum potential for bragging rights: Egypt, Uruguay, Belgium, or (gasp) Iceland.
The plastic cockney.
This person found their identity while watching Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as a teenager. They’re 100% American with no English ancestry, but have made it a point to adopt an English club and can even be heard putting on an accent when chanting along with the TV. Frequently visit England for vacation, and have likely seen the English national team play at Wembley more times than 99% of London’s population. High likelihood of listing 1966 as the year they would time travel to on their Tinder profile.
Main (only) team supported: England. For club and country I guess…