So I read this screed by Jonathan Clegg on WSJ.com titled "Why I Hate American Soccer Fans," and I figured it was time to respond to Europe's unending football snobbery. Clegg's main issue is Americans "aping" the behavior of soccer fans in Europe. Since I've never been guilty of this heinous act (the only team I've ever cared about is the United States men's national team), I can't respond to the specific charges. However, I do have a theory about why Europeans are so worried about having their pastime co-opted by Americans. First, some background:
I became a soccer fan watching the American Underdogs (that link goes to an amazing 4-part series you should read every word of) perform miracles during the 1994 World Cup. The most riveting moment of the tournament for me was a missed goal, Marcelo Balboa's bicycle kick that would have put the United States up 3-0 on Columbia (a side the Yanks weren't supposed to be competitive with). What's really amusing all these years later is to view the old, low-def Youtube video and watch Balboa muttering every cuss word in the book to himself. He was PISSED it didn't go in.
To really appreciate the degree to which American soccer has been nay-sayed and underestimated, we must fast forward to the present. One of Europe's leading soccer snobs is the USMNT's very own coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who has stated unequivocally that the USA cannot compete for a World Cup championship. Klinsmann is one of the leading goal scorers in World Cup history and a former World Cup champion. Surely we can take his word for it that Americans are unable to compete on the global soccer stage, right?
But wait. I seem to recall a quarterfinal match during the 2002 World Cup in which the United States sprayed the face of goal with shots, most turned aside by German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. But there was one shot that got past Kahn. Claudio Reyna, whom I wrote about during his college years at Virginia, sent a perfect cross in to Greg Berhalter. His shot went through Kahn only to be stopped by the hand of... God? No... of defender Torsten Frings. Had a penalty been awarded for the hand ball, it was anybody's match. A victory against Germany (and I remind you, the Americans, including a young Landon Donovan, were absolutely SHELLING the German goal) would have left only an over-achieving South Korea between the United States and a World Cup final. But Americans can't compete on the global soccer stage, can they Jürgen?
It all makes me wonder if this isn't a ploy by Klinsmann to put some American backs up. Is Klinsmann trying to reprise the tactics of Herb Brooks, who coached the US Olympic hockey team to the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980? Brooks was so acerbic that his team of college rivals banded together with Brooks as the common enemy. Could Klinsmann be playing similar mind games, trying to unite his team in its resentment of him? Who knows? Maybe Klinsmann is just a run-of-the-mill European soccer snob after all.
While Clegg bemoaned the preponderance of Arsenal fans among Americans, the English Premiere League side may have inadvertently strengthened North American-based Major League Soccer by snubbing America's best player: Michael Bradley. Before transferring from Italian Serie A side Roma to Toronto FC of MLS, Bradley was considered by Arsenal, which ultimately signed Sweden's Kim Kallstrom. The latter proved ineffective for Arsenal and former USMNT manager Bob Bradley (Michael's father) opined that Arsenal signed a lesser player due to ingrained European bias against American players.
And that brings me to my theory on why Clegg and other Euro's are weeping so many bitter tears about the growing popularity of soccer in America. The reason they hate American soccer fandom is because they know that when MLS begins to wield more financial power, those European sides will be competing directly with MLS for the top soccer talent in the world. Bradley, Clint Dempsey, English striker Jermain Defoe and Spanish striker David Villa have all signed big-money contracts to play in MLS. The money is already starting to flow and expansion is on the way, including a new club for my beloved ATL. More money and more rosters to fill... you know what that means, don't you Europe?
What would happen if the salary cap for MLS teams was raised from the current $3.1 million to somewhere around the current NBA salary cap (projected to rise to 63.2 million)? About half of Clegg's beloved Premier League teams would be picking from the leavings of players who opted against the States' warmer climates and higher standard of living.
All MLS needs is one last push to get over the hump. That could happen as soon as today when the United States gets its opportunity for revenge against Ghana, the team that has eliminated it from the last two World Cups. A result for the Americans in this match would set up a showdown with Portugal, ranked 4th in the world and led by Christiano Ronaldo, possibly the best soccer player in the world. We're going quickly discover the truth of Klinsmann's anti-American decree. This is about to get good.