I love soccer.
It feels important to get that out of the way early, to confess it, to wear that particular scarlet letter loudly and proudly.
Because to be a soccer fan in Meeker County is admitting you’re part of a small, small group — a group that must countenance good-natured abuse from other sports fans, including the Independent Review’s editor emeritus Stan Roeser, who would prefer to simply revoke soccer fans’ American citizenship.
This time of year, most diehard area sports fans are up to their ears in Vikings news, switching on the NFL Network’s training camp coverage and poring over stories rhapsodizing about Trae Waynes’ maturity and wondering whether downfield threat Mike Wallace can open up the running game for the newly returned Adrian Peterson.
This is all well and good: I don’t begrudge anyone their football fandom, and I certainly enjoy a well-played football game on the right day.
But I must admit that, for me, all this football chatter pales in comparison to the madness, uncertainty and beauty of the opening weekend of the English Premier League, which saw my chosen team, Swansea City, eke out a 2-2 tie against defending champion Chelsea, and middle-of-the-pack West Ham United stun top-tier Arsenal 2-0.
After last year’s Men’s World Cup set record-setting viewership ratings and this summer’s Women’s World Cup win, soccer is more popular than ever in the United States: more Americans watched Saturday’s Swansea-Chelsea draw than any EPL opening weekend in history, up 27 percent from last year’s kickoff weekend.
But the sport’s ratings still pale in comparison to the traditional American ratings juggernauts: Sunday night’s exhibition games between the Vikings and the Steelers drew a 6.9 overnight rating — higher than the Indy 500, the NBA or MLB conference playoffs and a whopping 740 percent more-watched than the aforementioned Chelsea-Swansea game.
There is still much work to do.
I am a recent soccer convert, one of the many whose interest has been piqued by the beautiful game’s increasing availability on our televisions and computers.
So, in the spirit of sharing, I would like to expend a few column inches extolling soccer’s virtues and attempting to convert you, dear reader.
(If you are already a soccer true believer, simply nod along in agreement.)
Here are a few reasons to starting tuning in:
The TV watching experience is second-to-none
When you sit down to watch a soccer game, you know precisely what you have gotten yourself into.
Unlike baseball — my favorite sport, mind you — league soccer fills a clearly demarcated chunk of time: if the game begins at 9 a.m., it will end by 11 a.m.
During these two hours, you are getting near-maximum activity: there are no timeouts, no clock stoppages and no commercials, save half-time.
As a viewer, you’re looking at 90 to 100 minutes of actual action in your two-hour block.
Compare that to football, where researchers have found that a three-hour football game features only 11 minutes of action — dwarfed by an hour of commercials and a staggering 75 minutes devoted to men standing around chattering into headsets and gesticulating at printouts or tablets.
Soccer jettisons the tertiary distractions of a typical sports broadcast and gives the viewer what they want: more sports.
The meek shall inherit nothing
In European soccer leagues such as the Premier League, league doormats are not allowed to linger on the basement floor.
Every season, the bottom three teams in the EPL are relegated and sent down to the Championship, the second tier of English soccer.
This year, that means out with last year’s bottom three — Hull City, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers — and in with Norwich City, Watford and Bournemouth, the top three teams from the Championship last season.
Relegation requires teams to push forward, to stay relevant through sage summer signings and quality play each weekend; there’s no tanking in soccer.
If relegation existed in baseball, the Twins would still be languishing in the Triple-A International League after their 2011 relegation, their fans clamoring for them to make some bold front-office moves to push the team back up to the major leagues.
Relegation ensures that a team puts a good product on the field — or at least must pay for the consequences of not doing so, as a fall from a top-flight league means a loss of at least $150 million in television revenues, an incensed fan base and a proper house-cleaning of upper management.
The free market reigns
No sport boasts a more laissez-faire approach to finances than international soccer, which features a wildly free market that any red-blooded American can appreciate.
And what’s more American than a free-market approach?
Unlike football, hockey, basketball or baseball, which all constrict salaries through an amateur draft and — with the exception of baseball — stringent salary caps, soccer allows players to maximize their value by following the money across the globe, to whichever club is the highest bidder.
Each summer, and during a brief transfer window in the winter, players are bought and sold between clubs around the world, as owners and managers reshape their squads.
Player contracts don’t hold much water in international soccer, as players bounce between clubs despite having just inked spendy contracts with numerous years remaining for their previous team.
Take Southampton, which every year produces dynamic and talented young players from its academy — players like Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin — and sees them poached by bigger, richer clubs run by energy barons, shady conglomerates and other various oligarchs.
There’s more to life than scoring
A common complaint about soccer is that there isn’t enough scoring.
“Oh, let me guess, they kicked the ball around for an hour-and-a-half and it ended 1-0,” is a typical gripe.
Well, I submit that there’s more to life than scoring.
We have enough instant gratification in our 21st-century society, enough immediate payoffs and round-the-clock gluttony.
A game of soccer has a narrative arc, rising and falling action, a climax, a denouement; goals can fit that narrative or undermine it — they can tell the whole story of a game or tell none of it.
You cannot appreciate the full beauty of a goal without its surrounding action, without its proper context.
The only way to appreciate it is to watch.