When the FIFA World Cup came to America for the first time, I was 15. I knew nothing about the sport, except that everyone else in the world played it. I'm pretty sure my mom bought me this beach towel because it was on sale, not because of its historical import.
It's taken fifteen years longer than the optimists hoped, but it finally seems that international soccer is about to break through in the U.S. Bill Simmons five reasons why.
1. Americans enjoy watching the best (fill in any sport). We are elitists. That's why we like the Olympics, that's why we enjoy any finals, that's why we watch Wimbledon and the Masters, that's why we don't care about sports like the WNBA, MLS or arena football as anything other than a niche sport. International soccer plays into this. It's the best of the best. Hell, we even liked "The Best of the Best" even though Eric Roberts was the biggest star in it.The palpable excitement in Seattle over the Sounders' match against Chelsea is, hopefully, a sign of things to come.
2. The games zoom along: no commercials, no sideline reporters, no corporate tie-ins, no four-hour games like in baseball, no "takes 20 minutes to play the last two" like in the NBA. You can sit down for a soccer game and say, "I'm going to spend the next two hours watching this and then I'm going to do something else." Like watch more TV.
3. Give credit to ESPN for committing air time in non-Cup years to elite international soccer tournaments like the UEFA Cup. I know that's how I started paying more attention. If you like sports, you cannot NOT get caught up in the level of play, the maniacal crowds, the intensity and tension and everything else. It's impossible.
4. Widescreen TVs make it easier to see the field; HD makes it easier to see faces and numbers (and the grass looks green and vibrant); and better camerawork (and also more cameras) make the games more intimate. Now you feel like the players are flopping right onto your living room rug! Just kidding, soccer fans. Seriously, settle down. Jokes.
5. International soccer never took off here for the simple reason that American sports fans had trouble following anything they couldn't attend in person and/or watch on television at their leisure. Now? We're turning into a sofa culture; since it's more expensive to go to games, many of us find it just as rewarding to stay home, save money and watch games on a nice TV. Throw in the Internet, DirecTV, fan blogs and everything else and you really can follow soccer from across the Atlantic.
That's why, over the next decade -- starting with the World Cup in 2010 -- I predict international soccer takes off to a modest degree in America during the '10s. Not to compare everything to "The Godfather," but for America, the NASL was Sonny (exciting, impetuous and ultimately self-destructive), the MLS is Fredo (weak) and international soccer is Michael (the heavy hitter who was lurking all along). That's how this plays out I think.