By Dylan Balsamo
Interest in soccer has been on the rise in the United States for a long time now, but in recent years the rate of growth has accelerated rapidly. All of the world’s major leagues have big-time American TV deals, World Cup television ratings continue to rise even after a change of networks and Major League Soccer, even though it has its issues, is profitable and is in the middle of a lucrative television contract itself.
Millions of people play the game all across the country, from youth to collegiate levels. The current president even said in an interview on CBS This Morning during this past Super Bowl Sunday that his son Barron plays soccer and that the sport is growing “quite rapidly.” Not so sad!
This could also not be a more exciting time to be a soccer fan. The UEFA Champions League is down to eight teams in the quarterfinals and resumes action next week. The English Premier League has become a dog race between Liverpool and reigning champions Manchester City, and coming into April 3 matches are only separated by two points. Cristiano Ronaldo is on track to score as many goals this year with his new team, Juventus, as he did last year. And American Christian Pulisic is making his final few appearances with German side Borussia Dortmund before he begins with Chelsea next season. There is just so much, but in the world of soccer, there always is.
And yet, soccer still finds itself left on the wayside by most Americans. In the United States, there are so many options at the sports buffet that it is difficult to bring a new dish into the mix. There is baseball, football, basketball, hockey and a few others also trying to find their way into the grander scope.
This past month saw one of the sporting events that Americans go the craziest for: March Madness, or the NCAA Basketball Tournament. You do not have to be Jon Rothstein to adore March Madness. The entire country fills out brackets and pretends they have been watching college hoops all year to watch the 64 best teams in the country play for the National Championship. March Madness is never not exciting.
Well, American sports fans may be surprised to learn that international soccer and college basketball are really not all that different. Not only do the sports themselves have similarities, but the formation of their seasons is pretty identical.
For one thing, these two sports are arguably the two sports played most around the planet. Of course, there are the obvious similarities of two teams trying to get more points than the other by passing a ball around and putting it into a net. Soccer and basketball are also quicker in gameplay than other sports. While baseball and football struggle to stay under three hours, basketball games can theoretically be played in two hours and soccer is always inside two. The games themselves are not so different.
More similar than the games, however, is the construction of soccer and college basketball seasons, which both begin around the fall and typically finish in the spring. Before the season starts, however, teams will play sides from other countries in exhibition matches (International Champions Cup, friendly matches). These are just like the beginning of college basketball season, which starts with preseason tournaments and games against non-conference opponents.
However, the core of soccer season in every league around the world, however, is the domestic league season (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga). These are leagues of usually 20 teams that play a home and away match against every other team in order to better their place in the league table, or the standings. This format is just like a college hoops team’s conference schedule.
Soccer clubs also play in tournaments against domestic opponents for separate titles (FA Cup, Copa del Rey). Though it is not a direct translation, think of these as similar to NCAA conference tournaments.
If a team plays well enough during their domestic season, the following season they will also get to play in an additional tournament called the Champions League against other top clubs from the continent (UEFA Champions League, CONCACAF Champions League). These tournaments are like each continent having their own NCAA Tournament, or their own March Madness.
In addition, the top soccer players in the world also play for their home country in international play. The United States has historically gone crazy for Olympic basketball, specifically with the “Dream Team” of 1992 in Barcelona. In soccer, every country has their own “Dream Team”, and they play in more than just the World Cup. There is the Confederations Cup, continental titles, the Olympics and of course, the newly founded Nations Leagues.
Any American sports fan finds themselves going crazy for college basketball in March, and anyone who goes crazy for that would go bezerk for soccer year round. While basketball is played all over, soccer is one of the main sports of the world, and it’s time for Americans to join the fun. As the British might tell you, “All we are saying is give soccer a chance.”