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Soccer Is Kicking at Wrong Door


So sorry to be the naysayer in a nation that Tuesday breathlessly proclaimed soccer to be the once and again "it" sport--all the newspapers said so, and if we printed it, you'd hope it were true--but the idea is just ridiculous.

Actually, I'm not sorry at all. The only thing sorry here is the way so many smart editors at reputable newspapers, including this one, people who should have known better, bought wholesale into the notion that soccer has arrived because of the U.S. team's historic run in the World Cup.

That's nonsense. Soccer is not, will not become, will never be the incredible sporting, cultural, even political influence it is in virtually every other nation on the planet. I would love it were it otherwise; I daresay I am one of the few people in this country who has willingly watched more than two games from this World Cup not involving the United States or Mexico--including the dreadful 8-0 German victory over Saudi Arabia and, for reasons I still can't explain, three games involving Belgium.

To explain why I'm convinced that pro soccer and a wider soccer culture is an idea going nowhere fast in the U.S., allow me the liberty of reporting from the front lines of what the breathless press would have you believe is the crucible of a new generation of soccer fans--the youth soccer leagues.

Yes, the kids play soccer. At least those who notice the ball. A fair number are chasing butterflies or scouring the field for four-leaf clovers.

At any rate, it's all totally irrelevant, because the great majority of fathers out there don't care if you're a swell soccer player. What they care about is if you learn to play baseball, basketball and football.

My middle child, a 5-year-old boy, played soccer last fall, T-ball this spring. Soccer was mellow, funny, even comical, the way it should be when 5-year-olds are involved. The first T-ball practice included serious drills and ran 1 hour 45 minutes--that's practice, not a game, and that's for T-ball, where in our league you don't even keep score. I can't even tell you how many dads insisted this spring on pitching--overhand--to the 5- and 6-year-old T-ballers instead of letting them develop their skills by hitting off the tee.

As the kids get older, and here I'm talking in particular about boys, 10 or 11 years old, there develops immense pressure to turn away from soccer--to pursue baseball, basketball and football.

The truly intense pressure, incidentally, comes not from adult role models--teachers and coaches--but from peers, the other fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade boys. Those boys who stay in soccer are called, derisively, "soccer monkeys."

Then comes high school. I will say this bluntly, and this may well be the crux of the problem, the real reason soccer has no chance here: Unlike the rest of the world, being a high school boys' varsity soccer player in the U.S. is not the way to get girls. Being a football player, a basketball player, even a baseball player, strutting down the hallway on game day in your jersey--that's the way to make the play.

That's the way it always has been, and always will be.

By the way, I readily concede that the atmosphere surrounding the Women's World Cup here in 1999 was fantastic, the crowd of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl outstanding, the Brandi Chastain snapshot, sports bra and all, a singular moment in our sporting history. But that's all it was--a moment, nothing more.

Check the latest from the women's pro soccer league, the WUSA--average announced attendance is down this year to 7,237 a game, from 8,104 in its first year. Look, even 8,104 is awful. I was in college at Northwestern at the onset of the Wildcats' 34-game football losing streak, so I know a bad product when I see one, but even the 1981 team, a candidate for the worst in college football history (0-11, including a 64-0 loss to Iowa and 61-14 pounding by Michigan State) drew an average of 24,370 fans to a decrepit Dyche Stadium.

That's more than three times what the women's pro games are drawing now--and this is three years after the photos of Chastain prompted a round of "soccer has arrived" stories.

Truly, it hadn't. And it won't. Ever.

Sorry. Well, not really. The overriding obligation of this newspaper is to deliver the truth.

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