Monday, October 17, 2011

Making The Case – We Call It Soccer

Preview: For those reading this (and that’d be you right now), this post is about more than semantics in calling our sport “soccer” instead of “football”. It is about defining our own history with the sport and our own identity within the global game.

In the last few weeks we’ve been reading David Wangerin’s (author of “Soccer in a Football World”) “Distant Corners” which chronicles the emergence of soccer in the United States. Even though we consider ourselves passionate American soccer fans we’ve found ourseves woefully ignorant on the depth and complexity of the beginnings of the sport here.

For many younger soccer fans in America it’s easy to assume that our sporting history does not extend much before the 1994 World Cup or the foundation of Major League Soccer in 1996. For those more seasoned veteran fans of the game they can recall the heyday of the North American Soccer League, the New York Cosmos, and a gaggle of foreign stars on our shores. You may even have heard or read a blurb about Joe Gaetjens and the “Miracle on Grass” in 1950 or that the United States somehow managed to field a side in the inaugural 1930 World Cup.

The truth is that since the end of the Civil War this sport has slowly, ever slowly, grown. From a game played by a sparse few and fertilized by “hyphenated” Americans to one embraced by all-American squads from New York to Pennsylvania to St. Louis and beyond. From the likes of the “Father of American Soccer” Tom Cahill to the birth of the American Challenge Cup in 1913 (that would later become the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup), American soccer has history.

With that being the groundwork for everything written henceforth, the Free Beer Movement declares that we must erase the term “football” from our collective vocabularies and instead replace it with soccer when referring to the game as it’s played in America.

Before anyone swells up into righteous anger, please hear us out.

At the most basical level this is to reduce confusion. Our American nation already has one football and, at this time, is the most popular sport in the country. Continually referring to soccer as football is confusing and ultimately unnecessary. For any of us that have friends, family, and co-workers that tolerate our soccer talk, blending “football” and “football” is at the least confounding and at the most, annoying. We’ve been prone to referring to “football” as “throwball” and that is most certainly insulting to fans of that game (whether you care about hurting their feelings or not… many of them are potential FBM converts).

As cited by an English gentleman, Daryl Grove, on the “Total Soccer Show” countries that have dueling “footballs” often defer to the term “soccer” to avoid confusion. And well, if that’s good enough for Australia I don’t know why it isn’t good enough for us.

Semantics aside, though, soccer means something. Despite the fact that “soccer” itself is a Oxford-“er” abbreviation of “association football” that originally evolved in the 1880s, the word “soccer” has taken on a uniquely American identity.

Despite the best efforts of many ex-pats in the United States to establish “football” as the prevailing title for the round ball sport emerging in the early 1900s, “football” of the gridiron-persuasion took hold, and as we know in today’s Bud Light/NFL world, has not relented since.

To use the word “soccer” instead of “football” is to make a greater distinction than just separating ourselves from the pointy-ball version. It is to declare our independence from the “football” of its birth nation, much like we did from its political system over 200 years ago.

The bright lights of Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, and Anfield are alluring, like the Sirens from Greek mythology, crashing our expectations for what this sport should be on their rocky shores. Their sport is football and there’s no crime in calling it so, but when referring to the Chicago Fire, it should be as their full name implies, a “Soccer” Club.

Fall River Marksmen from the
1921 American Soccer League season.
The first “significant, viable professional league” in the United States even adopted “soccer”, the American Soccer League, which lasted from 1921 to 1933, before they fell victim to the Great Depression and political infighting. 
Despite their failure it was understood that their name be distinctive from both the “American Football” played professionally and on college campuses and “European Football” played overseas. 

The national federation has, as Wangerin, explains, gone through “a confusing number of name changes, first founding itself as the United States Football Association (until 1945) then the United States Soccer Football Association, and then correcting themselves as the United States Soccer Federation in 1974. A proper name for a proper soccer nation.

For better or worse our history has earned us “soccer”. From innovative ideas like substitutions (first used in ASL games in 1926) to the less-so, like the 35-yard running shootout of the NASL and early MLS days or running our season contrary to the FIFA calendar and shying away from promotion/relegation, American soccer is unique and deserves a name that attests to that. We’re “soccer” in that we embrace the franchise system and playoffs as the rest of our sports do. Our supporters culture is uniquely “soccer” in that, much like our nation’s history, the stands are a melting pot (or the more properly and preferably, but less recognized “salad bowl”) of diversity.

By virtue of years of watching, waiting, and dreaming in the shadows of our other major sports and the global versions of this game we should embrace the word “soccer” as a badge of honor; to indicate the hard fought battles of sporting integration to legitimize a game birthed far away from here. 

Give credit where credit it due. Football, invented an ocean away, has inspired generations and millions of Americans (and immigrant Americans throughout) today. We can be fans both of the continental game (and other leagues of the world) and our domestic game, but it’s time to call a duck a duck and soccer, soccer.

We eat cookies, not biscuits. We have fries on the side, not chips. We wear pants, not trousers. We go to the bathroom, not the loo. We’ve declared our independence from so many other English words. Why not football?

For a nation so enamored with “exceptionalism”, “leading from the front”, and “making the world safe for democracy” we’re awfully content to take our cues from our more experienced brethren. We think by now we’ve gotten what we need from them and it’s time to continue our evolution and develop our own, American soccer identity. It’s not to say we don’t still aspire to the level our continental counterparts, but we must make sure what we produce is as unique as the country our domestic game grows within. Using the word “soccer” is a good start.

But really using “soccer” is just a way of sending a signal to the rest of the world (and many fans of the game here) that we’re through subscribing to the way things were or the way things are. There is only the way things will be.

We call it soccer.

Post-Script: The title of this post is both to make a point (obviously) and a tribute to a now defunct blog titled, “We Call It Soccer”. The author of said blog first came up with the idea of the Free Beer Movement, which we now curate.

Get the NEW Free Beer Movement “Pint Glass” shirt! Only from


Anonymous said…

PEOPLES, The only beer we could get in Milwaukee when we had a major brewery strike! Tasted bad but it was all we had! Thanks for the memory. I played with the Serbians when I was 10 years old, never heard anyone call it "football" it was always soccer to me. 50 years later and I am always troubled when youth clubs have to add in FC instead of SC. Might have something to do with the Islanders influence.

Anonymous said…

Yes!!!! I think the biggest issues are teams like FC Dallas or FC tampa bay down here in the NASL. We don't say football club, so why not turn the F into an S. Drives me nuts.

Patrick Carver said…

100% agree with you guys on this. New MLS teams should be banned from calling themselves Football Clubs.

We shouldn't be worried about trying to 'honor' the rest of the world by calling it football and confusing half the people in America.

We've got our own soccer culture, let's build THAT.

Hat tip to you guys, we used this article in our All-American Soccer Report here:

Anonymous said…

I agree, and would go quite a bit farther:
It's not a pitch, it's a soccer field.
The ball doesn't go into touch, it goes out of bounds.
It's not a fixture, it's a game. Or a match, if you must.
Boots? No, they're cleats, or even spikes.
We don't draw in America, we tie.
We don't talk about pace, we talk about speed.

M Lindner said…

One of the purposes of a common language is to reduce confusion in written and oral communication. In the US, we have a game that is known as football. That's not changing anytime soon and to suggest we start calling something else by that name runs contrary to the goals of language. If I walk into a bar and talk about football, everyone knows what I'm talking about. Likewise with soccer. I happen to be a fan of both games, and enjoy talking about both with other fans. American English varies from its British counterpart. No sense in hiding that, especially when it only makes things clearer.

Elliott said…

I can certainly dig the patriotic sentiment, but I've never had any confusion over the term "football" because the context usually clarifies its meaning.

Should we also change the term "mouse" to "computer-pointer-and-clicker" to accommodate the less tech savvy US senior citizens? Or dare we risk rodent-confusion on a MASSIVE SCALE?

Anonymous said…

no, because US senior citizens know the difference, but if you tell them you're headed out to play football, they'll ask where your helmet is, and so will the rest of America for that matter..young and old.

Arguing the verbage takes away the awesomeness of the game, and gives haters yet *another* thing to make you get your panties in a bunch.

I do still call it a pitch though. It's a baseball diamond, football field, basketball court, and a soccer pitch.

Steve Bayley said…

I am 30, white,and an American. I love Football and I love Soccer. I love them both. Football is played with helmets and is the greatest sport ever invented. Soccer is played with shinguards and is a CLOSE second.

By continuing to refer to soccer as football you just alienate all the fans that we would ultimately like to expose to the game. Especially inthe younger generation, there is a large and growing population of soccer fans who are much more "mainstream" than the niche audiences of previous generations. This is a great article and I really appreciate it. It is definitley appropriate to put our American stamp on the game. And you know what, Soccer truly is growing and growing fastin America. Better to focus on that than get caught up in soccer snob bs. How about the fact that the intensity of soccer is second only to football, and provides the ultimate summer tailgating opportunities.

Anonymous said…

But … in soccer nobody gets socked and they use only their feet to control the ball while in American football people get socked all the time, I know, I used to play and in American football they never use their feet to control the ball. Even when I was a jock I wondered why it was named football.

Post a Comment

"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
– Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

Thanks for leaving a comment!