February 9, 2007

What Soccer Means To America

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If you watched the U.S.-Mexico soccer match on Wednesday night, you know exactly what soccer — or fútbol — means in the United States.

The stadium was filled with Mexico supporters. Green, white and red flags swayed in the Arizona desert wind. The bright green jerseys of the away squad seemed to be taken out of a Diego Rivera mural.

When the Mexican national anthem played, thousands of voices sang the lyrics in unison. When the American anthem played next, it was as if no one knew the lyrics.

The contest was the latest in a series between the border rivals dating back to 1934. For years, the Mexicans enacted revenge on the northern imperialists and El Tri dominated the series.

Lately, however, the gringos have caught up a little bit. Since 1990, the U.S. has appeared in every World Cup and has sent numerous players to prestigious European leagues. Despite the Americans’ anemic showing at the 2006 World Cup, soccer enthusiasm in Super Bowl nation has never been higher.

Which means it is nestled somewhere between hot dog eating contests and hockey.

Yet, throughout Occupied Mexico — the southwest United States — soccer remains the true national sport. In parks and alleys from San Juan Capistrano to Albuquerque, pickup soccer is as widespread as family-owned taco stands.

The extensive influence of Mexican culture on American soccer is undeniable. Major League Soccer teams in cities like Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles have extensive — if not exclusive — Hispanic followings.

In its infancy, the MLS depended on the people George W. Bush treats as third-class citizens for its first-class soccer devotion.

Now things are supposed to have changed. The Los Angeles Galaxy — which issues its marketing slogans in English — just signed the biggest soccer star on the planet.

What does David Beckham mean to the overwhelmingly Hispanic soccer following in the United States? The same thing he would mean to any other knowledgeable fan base in the world — on-field talent.

What the Galaxy and the rest of the league hopes he will be is a catalyst for the expansion of American soccer’s popularity to the “mainstream.”

Beckham is a dream come true for MLS enthusiasts. He gives the league instant respectability and legitimacy. If the league is good enough for the captain of the English national team, who could it not be good enough for?

Becks is also a marketer’s dream. He looks good. He has style and a celebrity wife. He will be at the Hollywood parties. He may even be able to convince people that his speech impediment is cute.

American soccer needs David Beckham — but not just for his talent and looks. American soccer needs the type of fans Beckham can cultivate. Without Becks, the MLS stays on ESPNDeportes. With Beckham, MLS games get a weekly spot on ESPN.

Back in Arizona, the Mexican fans continued to overwhelm the scattered U.S. supporters. The home team cradled a 1-0 lead heading into extra time when Landon Donovan broke away from the Mexican defense. His perfectly-placed shot led the U.S. team to a 2-0 victory — the ninth consecutive home game in which the Americans have held the Mexicans without a goal.

Still, the boos at the stadium continue to be louder than the cheers.