Friday, December 28, 2012


If you follow the sporting life in the United States, you may have noticed that football aka soccer seems to have clicked a notch or two higher than ever before in American consciousness. Denigrated as an effete sport for "the rest of the word" during most of my lifetime, or dismissed as ponderously impenetrable or out-and-out boring by everyone else, there's still always been that hope that soccer could "take off" beyond the thousands of youth leagues around this country and actually have a professional class of athletes and a citizenry who truly care about the outcomes of games. The last two World Cups were a start; the Women's World Cup in 2011 also generated a ton of coverage and interest (as well it should have - those were some of the most tense and dramatic sporting events I've ever seen), but it seems like this past year we might have seen a slow tipping point, in which the US of A finally admits that soccer, aka original recipe football, is actually a pretty spectacular game.

Like any frontrunner, I'm right there with 'em. It also has something to do with hockey being on strike, and the slow-in-coming realization that the NBA is virtually meaningless until the playoffs start, what with 16 teams, several with sub-.500 records, getting in. Any hey, it's not like I just discovered the sport. As a card-carrying 45-year-old, I can attest to having attended NASL professional matches back in the late 70s. San Jose Earthquakes vs. the Tulsa Roughnecks, anyone? I was there. I got swept into the US's quickie enthusiasm for Pele and this league for a year or two, and when that evaporated, I barely paid attention to professional soccer again until this past decade. (In the US, there really wasn't much to pay attention to - and before the internet, trying to follow the English Premiere League was for hardcore soccer freaks or expats only).

In the internet era, I've had several false starts in trying to get into the game. About five years ago I swore I'd learn everything I could about the sport - not just rules, but history, strategy, players' names, all the teams and so on. I reckoned I'd focus on the English premier league, because that's where the majority of the world's great players are (a little less true now than it was even a half-decade ago). I needed a team. Having learned a little bit about Tottenham Hotspur on a trip to the UK in 2000, and understanding from having read "Fever Pitch" that they were the perennial London underdog to cross-city arch-rival Arsenal, I cast my lot in with them. That lasted about two weeks, when I got busy at work or something and forgot to check the standings for a few games. I concluded that my heart wasn't in it, and since the games weren't on TV anyway, I went back to the NHL and NBA for my non-baseball sports fix.

Things have changed pretty intensely the past few years. While I've been able to go deep during the World Cup every four years, having watched at least 10-12 games each in 2002, 2006 and 2010, it's only the past few years that ESPN has regularly shown English Premiere League games on their main channel, the one I get, albeit usually at 6 in the morning where I live. That's OK - that's what TiVo's for - and it ain't like I've got a dozen pals who are going to text me smack-talk about the Everton vs. Stoke City game. The US league, the MLS, is growing rapidly and seems to have finally found financial stability. Some of the markets - Kansas City, Seattle and Portland in particular - have a large and absolutely rabid fanbase, easily as intense and devoted as the fans of virtually any NHL or NBA team.

The MLS "game" is admittedly minor-league stuff, years behind its EPL counterpart across the pond in developing and recruiting top talent. I watched some of this year's playoffs, and was not only frustrated with the dumb rules (you play 2 games against your opponent, and whomever has the most goals across both games in total advances), I found the play a sad shadow of the English (and Spanish, and Italian, and German) league. Yet it's a start. There's a whole infrastructure of soccer resources I'm discovering to feed my growing mania for the sport. Dozens of websites, obviously; the Fox Soccer Channel (I don't get it, but their mobile app is pretty sweet); ESPN's weekly live games from England (more on the Watch ESPN app); a SiriusXM radio station devoted to 24/7 coverage and talk about the sport; and tons of podcasts and blogs. I'm soaking it all up and paying an inordinate amount of attention to the sport these last few months.

On that last note, I need to make a particular callout to the Men In Blazers podcast, SiriusXM radio show and blog. These guys - Rog and Dave-o - are British expats living in the US, on a mission to bring football/soccer mania to Americans in the manner they grew up in back in the UK. They're extremely cutting, funny, quick-witted and full of weirdo in-jokes that you need to be a GFOP (Good Friend of the Pod) to understand. It's done a great deal to stoke my new soccer fandom, and I thank them profusely for it. 

So now all I need is a team. There's no way I'm going to go for one of the sheik- or conglomerate-owned powerhouses like Manchester United (who are OMG amazing to watch, however) or Chelsea or Manchester City. Arsenal is too storied and popular. Tottenham, maybe. But what about some upstart whom I can grab onto now while they're decent enough, and ride all the way to glory when they get better? Someone like West Ham, or Aston Villa, or Fulham or even a team lurking in the Championship league (the minor league one step below the Premiership)? I'm still working on it. If you've got any ideas, let me know.