Commie Ball

I was surprised.  “You have kids who play soccer?”

It was 1980.  Oklahoma City.  My wife and I were visiting friends.  Our conversation had turned to youth sports.

“Yeah, and we love it.”

Here’s what I knew about soccer:  There was some guy in Brazil named Pele who had something to do with it.  A field the size of Rhode Island.  Baggy shorts.  Nobody ever scores.

“It’s a great sport for young kids,” my friend said.  “The athletic ones are going to do their thing.   But the marginal kids are still going to run a lot and get plenty of exercise and have fun.  It’s great.”

Whatever.  Then about six months later my oldest, a kindergartener, brought home a sign-up sheet for pee-wee soccer.

I thought about our conversation.  I liked the part about all the running.  “Is this something you’d like to try, Mike?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

And with a noncommittal shoulder shrug the trajectory of the Huston family changed forever.

Simply put, we got the bug.  All eleven of our children have played.  Some had the drive to excel, others played for the fun of it.  I spent a decade refereeing high school soccer.  My wife coached for years.  Today we have kids playing in adult leagues and coaching.  Several of our grandchildren play.  One is having his tuition paid by a major university in exchange for his soccer skills.

Now another World Cup is underway.  This one is in Russia.  In 1994 it was in the United States, and in eight years it will be back again.  Some compare the World Cup to the Olympics, but it’s not really close.  The World Cup is the Olympics on steroids.

To Americans who have grown up on baseball and the NFL, soccer is (pick your adjective) dumb, boring, sissy, or simply incomprehensible.   Since Americans always seem to win the women’s World Cup we’re okay with women playing soccer—but that’s because we like winning, not because we like soccer.

Except that, increasingly, we do.  Major League Soccer, the MLS, has been around for 24 years.  The first five or six years were a struggle.  But now—oh baby.  Twenty-three teams, with expansion teams ramping up in Miami, Cincinnati, and Nashville.  The MLS team with the highest average attendance is in Atlanta, deep in the heart of NASCAR country.  In per-game attendance, MLS now leads both the NBA and the NHL.

But there are always curmudgeons.   Ann Coulter may be America’s most high profile hater of all things soccer.  She goes out of her way to argue that soccer (I’m not making this up) is a sign of American moral decay.  It’s all that team play, you see.  It’s socialist.

Team play is socialist?  Try telling that to the Golden State Warriors.

I’d like to see her test her Commie-ball theory on some of the good ol’ boys cheering their lungs out at an Atlanta United game.

Yes, soccer is different.  It has unique rules.  A final score of 2-0 can be considered a blowout.   There’s a lot of on-the-ground writhing.  The best teams don’t always win.  Ties are okay.  Like every sport it has its own language, culture, insider knowledge, and fabled history.

I don’t have a problem with people who don’t like soccer, but I grow tired of their obsession with low scores.   At least we don’t stop every two minutes for a four minute commercial break.  Every sport has its non-fan annoyances.   My favorites?  Baseball: people mostly standing around.  Football:  commercials broken up by occasional scrums.  Hockey:  an excuse to fight.  The NBA:  selfish hotshots.    Golf:  A cure for insomnia.  NASCAR:  an endless left turn.

But so what?  If you love a sport you see beyond all the distractions to the heart that’s inside.  Even the soccer haters concede there’s a lot of passion out there on the pitch and in the stands.  There’s a reason why.

And now it’s the World Cup.  Watch a game.   I recommend Brazil, Spain, England, or Mexico.  Good luck figuring out the offside rule.

I’m just sayin’ there’s a serious party going on.  You can join it and still like the NFL.   Just like Atlanta.

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