- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2011

Soccer lovers in the U.S. have a chip on their shoulders and with good reason, miffed that their sport isn’t as beloved here as it is worldwide. But they aren’t the only fans frustrated by America’s particular taste.

The world’s favorite team sports, based on total fan rankings by www.mostpopularsports.net, are soccer, cricket, field hockey, volleyball and baseball. In the U.S., it’s baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer.

So fans of “the beautiful game” have to get in line when lodging complaints that America doesn’t get it. At least they have Major League Soccer and the fledging Women’s Professional Soccer to provide a fix. There aren’t many domestic options for spectators in search of pros wielding wickets or spiking sets.

The just-concluded Women’s World Cup gave soccer its every-four-years booster shot that doesn’t exist for many sports outside of the Olympics. And the U.S. team’s thrilling performance was a big hit at home, generating huge TV ratings and saturation coverage in print, cyberspace and broadcast reports. Predictably, thoughts have turned to what it might mean for women’s soccer here, and U.S. soccer overall.

Unfortunately for diehards, it won’t result in a dramatic reshuffling of our pro sports preferences. Soccer will still trail baseball, football, basketball and hockey, and women’s pro soccer still will struggle to be viable.

This isn’t to suggest that the World Cup lacks in any way. It’s a compelling spectacle of athletic competition, intensified by the high stakes that send much of the planet into a frenzy. Appreciating world-class athletes in a hotly contested international tournament isn’t that hard, whether you care much for soccer.

Unlike many who caught the wave earlier, I didn’t tune in until Sunday’s championship match between the U.S. and Japan. But having followed accounts of the national team’s run-up to the title match, I was eager to watch and stayed glued to the tube (besides occasional switches to the Nats-Braves game).

The tension and anxiety leapt off the screen, enhanced by the painted faces of flag-waving fans. Knowing that the World Cup means so much to so many on the planet - enough to drive fans to commit murder based on the men’s tournament - makes the event especially alluring. That’s enough to overlook the game’s flaws - lack of action, lack of scoring, lack of comebacks and lack of hands - and to appreciate the world’s best for simply being the best.

But just because the World Cup is captivating doesn’t mean that soccer is, too.

I used to think something was wrong with us for not loving the game with a fraction of the fervor shown for football, baseball and basketball. I thought our wiring must be off to essentially yawn at a sport that creates pandemonium everywhere else.

However, I’ve come to accept the fact that most mainstream sports fans in America are just different, and fans of soccer, cricket, field hockey and volleyball have to face that fact.

In soccer’s case, besides the pace being too slow, scoring being too sparse and comebacks being too rare, the matter of not using your hands is a major drawback. That takes away at least half the fun of playing with a ball.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate soccer or even dislike soccer. It’s just not as appealing as the other major pro team sports. But it appears to be doing well as No. 5.

This year, MLS could have its highest average attendance since its inaugural season (1996), putting it in line with the NBA and NHL at around 18,000 fans per game. The league will feature 19 teams next season, with 13 of them playing in their own soccer-specific stadiums. Games are featured on local and national TV, with partners including ESPN, Fox Soccer, TSN (Canada), Galavision and Telefutura.

Of course, none of that means a thing when it comes to women’s soccer, which struggles compared to the men’s version like the WNBA to the NBA. All but one player on the U.S. women’s soccer team plays in the WPS, a three-year-old venture with six franchises along the East Coast. Yet, attendance has been sparse (under 4,000 per game), as four teams folded the first two years and the Washington Freedom relocated to South Florida.

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