Sunday, July 18, 2010

Coming to a Half-Empty Stadium Near You

Like David Beckham before him, Thierry Henry becomes soccer’s latest star striker to be plucked from Europe in hopes of spurring Americans to care about MLS:

Thierry Henry's move to the New York Red Bulls will help Major League Soccer in its goal to become one of the "world's elite soccer leagues'', according to the organisation's vice-president of marketing and communications.

As it was with Beckham, the Henry experiment will fail.

Beckham had far more fame and visibility ahead of his coming to the LA Galaxy, and that still wasn’t enough to attract anything beyond a short term buzz for the team and league. Henry is much less known in America, so the idea of turning him into a “star” ambassador for the game is fantasy.

Beckham hailed from the UK, a country most Americans are still relatively well-disposed to. Thierry was born near Paris, and is bound to trigger the usual slap-dick antics Americans heap on anything French-related (brace yourself for hacky French accents and deafeningly unfunny surrender jokes).

And like Beckham by the time he reached MLS, Thierry is past his prime, so it is doubtful we are about to be treated to a one-man exhibition of soccer at its finest that will inspire a generation of Americans to ditch LeBron, cast off the Air Jordans of their forefathers, and demand a pair of soccer cleats.

A similar “ambassadorship” was tried with Pelé, who in 1975 was recruited to the New York Cosmos of the now defunct NASL. Pelé was a more accomplished and more US visible player than Henry. Pelé also had some political cache, and was playing in the era of Muhammad Ali; probably the golden age of politicized sport (Henry lacks these advantages). And despite all that, and despite playing in a media-saturated glamour town, Pelé’s presence failed to reap the lasting dividends US soccer believers were banking on.

Can New York soccer lightning fail to strike twice? Yes it can.

Henry will spark some sizzle early on, but that sizzle won’t even reach the levels ignited by Beckham’s arrival. Then we’ll be barraged with the familiar round of tired, soul-searching columns wondering why Americans don’t get soccer. The proposed solutions will be the usual calls for “better coaching” and “better promotion at the youth level.” Maybe the conversation should instead begin with the fact that the rest of Earth calls it football, and we already have a sport called football, thanks very much, whose popularity and stature towers over all other US athletics.

Hilarity aside, maybe it’s as simple as Americans just preferring high scoring sports. Hockey scores are similar to soccer’s, and in terms of visibility, hockey has long been a distant fourth among the four major US team sports. Coincidence?

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