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The Throw-In: Fans in North America are defensive – and have a thicker skin than they realize

Soccer is under attack in the United States – will it ever survive?

OK, now that I got your attention, perhaps you’ll keep reading. The sport is just fine on these shores, thank you. But earlier this week, another bomb was dropped on American soccer that got the fan base up in arms.

According to an article on the website of The Atlantic, Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer in a grander sense should take a page from the way the game has grown in – of all places – Australia.

Now, let’s pity the writer for a second. He's done some good stuff in the past, and it’s clear that this particular story was a bit of an attention grab that most likely wasn’t helped by his editor, who wrote a particularly sensationalized headline. (“How to Make Americans Love Soccer: Just Copy Australia” – oh, that’s unfortunate.)

And to be fair, his piece is well written if not ill conceived. The game is healthy enough Down Under – I’ve experienced the A-League myself and it reminds me a bit of where MLS was 10 years ago. It’s still fighting the good fight and dealing with some very unique challenges that many American and Canadian fans will find familiar. But the piece is indeed a call to arms, a suggestion that someone is doing it better.

(I won’t get into a blow-by-blow, but I did chuckle at the mention of onetime New England Revolution washout Cássio as an archetypical example of the “foreign talent” the A-League has recruited. Or the talking up of the star power of Alessandro Del Piero, who was brought to Sydney as a “Marquee Player” – a league initiative that was inspired directly by MLS’ Designated Player rule.)

As both fans and supporters (yes, you can be both) of the sport here, we’ve grown accustomed to periodic fusillades of criticism as to how the game is being fostered here in America. Everyone seems to have an idea of how it should and shouldn’t be done.

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Some are columns by people covering more mainstream sports in North America who make woefully misunderstood conclusions about the challenges soccer still faces. Others are longtime supporters of the game who seem to think they have all the answers. And others still are major power brokers in the world game who take a passing shot at its American incarnation.

Everyone has an opinion and everyone is entitled to his or her own take. Regardless of whether it’s well-informed, researched and thought out, or a gross oversimplication while ignoring the important details, it’s all good debate.

The bigger point here is that this is a discussion that needs to be had on a regular basis. It’s a healthy conversation and reminds us that there’s always work to do to improve the game. And that’s not just true of the United States or Canada, it’s true anywhere where soccer is played professionally.

And nothing fires up soccer fans like being told their club, country or league is doing something wrong. Case in point, read some of the comments at the bottom of The Atlantic article and it’s clear that the writer touched a major nerve.

This happens every time Jim Rome slams the sport. It’s why so many people get a kick out of certain Twitter personalities who think promotion and relegation is some silver bullet. Or why a nation of fans goes up in arms when FIFA president Sepp Blatter says no one cares in America.

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Re-read this most recent piece after removing your angry glasses and there are actually some good points of discussion. What I choose to take away from it is that MLS and the game in North America can always learn from how it’s being developed and cared for abroad – from the uber-blessed places like Germany where the infrastructure is seemingly unassailable, all the way down to developing soccer nations on other continents, where the game is often dirty and the money changing hands is even dirtier. And literally every place in between.

The bigger point is this: MLS and U.S. Soccer don’t need to imitate anyone. And the fans know it – their voices have helped shape more of the development of the sport here than perhaps they realize. Can they borrow aspects that have succeeded in other places? Yes, definitely. Have mistakes been made? Absolutely. Are there still some missteps being made as soccer fights for wider recognition? Certainly.

But fans here have a thicker skin than they know. If it takes a periodic attack on the game we hold dear to mobilize us and wear our passion directly on our sleeves, that’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s the healthiest sign yet.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.


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