In Defense of American Soccer Fans

When Berlin-born center back John Brooks scored the United States’ winning goal against Ghana, fans brooks ghanawatching the game in bars across the US celebrated wildly. I know this because I’ve seen it on YouTube. Videos of American soccer fans wearing replica jerseys and red-white-and-blue scarves as they cheered on the US national team became an Internet sensation after Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal against Algeria in 2010, and a handful of similar clips cropped up the morning after the Ghana game. I love these videos. I happen to think it’s pretty cool that Americans are excited about soccer.

Not everyone agrees with me. American soccer fans are under assault – not by partisans of other American sports who consider soccer slow and boring but, surprisingly, by fellow soccer fans. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Why I Hate American Soccer Fans,” Jonathan Clegg, a British expat who writes about the New York Giants for a living, calls American fans an intolerable “scourge on my beloved game” and “the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet.”

Apparently, Clegg is annoyed that American fans have copied their European peers. He mocks their “self-conscious use of terms like ‘pitch,’ ‘match’ and ‘kit,’” and bemoans the audacity with which they have “pilfered elements of fan culture from Spain, Italy and Latin America.” But in virtually the same breath, he denounces American fans for developing their own idiosyncrasies: for calling penalties “PKs” and fullbacks “outside backs” and for christening Clint Dempsey “Deuce,” rather than calling him by a more authentically British nickname, like “Demps.”

Clegg claims that “one of the joys of soccer is seeing how different cultures view, interpret and celebrate the game in their own distinct ways” – and then he delivers a mean-spirited rebuke of the way Americans view, interpret and celebrate the game. There’s nothing wrong with the hodgepodge of European and Latin American traditions that defines American soccer fandom. The United States is a nation of immigrants; its soccer culture merely reflects that demographic reality.

ESPN’s superb coverage of the 2014 World Cup is nothing if not multicultural: Alexi Lalas arguing with Roberto Martinez and Michael Ballack, Taylor Twellman commentating alongside Ian Darke. American soccer has plenty of issues – Fox, the MLS schedule, Gus Johnson – but the diversity of its fan culture (and of Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup squad) is not one of them.

I suspect that Clegg is nostalgic for pre-Internet soccer – for the days when Germans were Germans and Americans were Americans and players born in Berlin stayed there. The current state of America’s soccer culture epitomizes several important trends that have reshaped the sport over the last decade: the globalization of European super clubs and, by extension, of the traditions associated with their leagues; the Moneyball approach to understanding player performance; even the increasing prominence of women’s soccer. For some people, all this will take a little getting used to. But ultimately these changes, and America’s role in them, are something to celebrate – definitely in a bar, and possibly in front of a video camera.

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