Essay: This World Cup will be a true test of American soccer fandom


Jordan Schneider, 24, of D.C., cheers for the U.S. with an American flag tied around his neck and a red, white, and blue hat on. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

This feels like the year. The year that U.S. soccer fans finally get it together and root for their team at the World Cup without making too much of a spectacle of themselves.

Monday, the United States defeated Ghana (2-1), a nation that has summarily schooled millions in this country about what the world’s game is really all about.

I remember watching Ghana knock the United States out of the 2010 tournament, at a bar in Adams Morgan. They played Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” before the match, and I genuinely enjoyed it. But I knew the Americans would lose. They were playing a better team. Explaining that fact was more difficult than I thought it would be.

Soccer fans in the United States — of the U.S. Men’s National Team, of the MLS, the 30 million Americans who watched the past season of the Premier League on NBC Sports — are a divided bunch. On one end, you have a generation that was primarily introduced to the game 20 years ago, that takes pride in the ups and downs of the squad. On the other is a crew that loves to flex their American exceptionalism and drop in every four years looking for something novel to validate their quasi-worldly outlooks.

In between those extremes, the fans are slowly maturing. When veteran Landon Donovan was omitted from this tournament’s roster, it laid bare a brutal reality for U.S. fans: The game and the team are bigger than one particular player.

This tournament puts U.S. fans in new position. It’s just another soccer team. Not the team that’s going to push the game’s popularity over the top, or the group that just might surprise people and sniff major success.

Everything is average. Which is perfect.

We have ideal conditions for a true test of American soccer fandom — and I think we’re ready. With my lifetime of soccer obsession, I also know how far we’ve come.

In October 2009, the United States was playing a match in Honduras that they had to win in order to make their qualifying run for the 2010 tournament in South Africa easier. The game was on pay-per-view. When the nerve-racking match ended in a U.S. win, I felt as if I’d run a marathon. A buddy of mine had ordered the game, but didn’t tell everyone at the viewing party just how it important it was. These days, he wouldn’t have to.

Rebecca Lowe, host of NBC Sports’ Premier League Live show, knows soccer fans are “a minority within sports.” But even within that minority there is often a perception of the right way to be a soccer fan. She describes the problem this way: “There’s always people saying, ‘Oh, you don’t know anything about football; you’re not really part of it. We’re knowledgeable and no one else is.’ I think that’s going to change and that has to change.”

Scoffing at soccer makes you look like an uncultured buffoon. In the District, specifically, it’s particularly noticeable. And for the first time in my life, I feel like being a fan of the game isn’t a personality quirk or trick to trot out at parties.

The cachet of being a “footy fan” is fading, but there is still no discernible success to really get behind. On some level, it’s become a truer test of nationalism.

“The national team has become more, kind of celebrities, like other professional athletes in America are. So the more casual fan, who just likes sports, is way more into it than in past years,” says Molly Bruh, who is D.C. United’s digital coordinator. She attributes some of this new enthusiasm to U.S. soccer’s social media skill. “I think that the regular die-hards who watch every qualifier . . . are coming out in even bigger numbers, kind of trying to rally the troops a little bit more.”

Thankfully, the rift between die-hards and casual observers is closing. Just as it’s lame to blow off soccer as a sport, it’s equally ridiculous to act as if following the most popular game in the world is somehow a membership in a secret club.

Erik Enger is a die-hard. He helped start the D.C. chapter of American Outlaws, a group dedicated to U.S. national team fans, and he is a D.C. United season ticket holder. Enger, a Maryland native, says he launched the group to try and eliminate the notion that being a fan of the game required a high bar of knowledge. He is actively cultivating new fans. That’s what the sport needs. “If you’re going to grow the sport in this country, you’ve got to get new people,” he says.

Yes, there is a universal language about soccer that is appealing. But, no, it’s not something that requires a degree in Euro-Latin subcultures to understand. Which, at this point, is the best part.

“I think any attempt to pin down what an American way of thinking about soccer or being a fan of soccer or whatever, if you’re trying to pin that down, you’re probably going to be wrong,” says Jason Davis, who hosts a show called Soccer Morning on Soccerly.com. Davis lives in Warrenton, Va., and makes his living writing and talking about soccer.

He thinks American soccer fans are divided internally. They want to be confident Americans — “like we tend to be about everything. We’re Americans. We do it the best.” But there is also the slight complicating factor that in soccer, we’re not. So fans end up, he says, “sort of cowed by the notion that we are new beasts. That we are coming into this when the rest of the world has been doing this 100 years.”

That’s the problem at the heart of American fandom, Davis says. “We’re torn with this idea of trying to fit ourselves in a world that’s already established, and being sort of shouted down whenever we want to play the American role.”

But I’m not torn on anything. I love footy and I’m an American. Maybe one day they’ll win a World Cup, maybe not. I just hope I’m around to see it.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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