Americans have a very complicated relationship with the game of soccer. It starts with the word itself, of course. The entire rest of the world calls the game “football,” and it makes logical sense, because players kick the ball with their feet. Putting nomenclature aside, though, there are a number of reasons soccer and America are an odd fit, from the style of the game to the morning start times.
Since my last column, Bob Bradley was appointed coach at Swansea City, becoming the first American coach in the 24 years of the English Premier League. On this occasion, let’s examine the challenges that Bradley faces in his new role, as well as some barriers limiting soccer’s growth in America.
Bradley is a very experienced soccer manager. The 58-year-old American has coached right here in the Ivy League, as he managed his alma mater Princeton for 12 seasons. He moved on to a couple different MLS teams over the years, eventually joining up with the U.S. national team set-up. This culminated in five years as American national team boss, including the 2010 World Cup.
Since then, he has somewhat disappeared from the mainstream, coaching the Egyptian national team, a Norwegian team and a French second-division club, Le Havre. He left Normandy for Swansea just a few weeks ago, and this move has parachuted him back into the mainstream soccer world. Bradley is faced with the challenge of keeping up a Swansea squad that has struggled at the start of the season.
Besides the on-field challenges, Bradley faces the stereotype that Americans often fail to adjust in the Premier League. Because Bradley is the first-ever American manager in EPL, there are only American players to use as precedent, who tend to have a tough time at the top level. A few players have made it in England, like Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Geoff Cameron, however. The three have had long careers at clubs from Everton to Manchester United and Stoke City.
However, the list of U.S. failures is far longer, and it features players like Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea and countless others. These athletes captured national attention with big-money moves to England and were touted as the future of the U.S. national team, only to struggle in England and never fully recover. These are some of the stigmas Bradley will have to tackle while coaching in England.
Bradley’s case is a microcosm of the larger American relationship with soccer. There are several key reasons why soccer will never be a perfect fit for the American fanbase. The game has mainly a tactical appeal — soccer haters love to talk about how some games last for an hour and a half and barely anyone scores. The tactical side of the game appeals more to Europeans than Americans. Americans are privy to the hard-hitting battles of the NFL and the ability of superstars to dominate like in the NBA.
Another reason soccer struggles to grow is the game’s start times. The majority of English games start at 3 p.m. local time, with one or two a few hours before or after. This puts most games on anywhere from 7 to 10 a.m. across the states. While this time schedule works for Britain and also for the rapidly expanding Asian market — where these games are live in prime time — the schedule is extremely inconvenient in America.
Very few people are willing to wake up on weekend mornings to watch soccer games from England. The style of the game and odd start times are inhibiting the game’s development in the United States.
Americans and soccer have a complicated relationship, which is a timely topic of discussion in the wake of Bradley’s appointment as Swansea City manager. If Bradley fails to succeed in South Wales, then he just might be cited as a reason not to hire American coaches in the future. It is crucial for the future of Americans in the EPL that Bradley succeeds as Swansea coach.