Thierry Says Relax

Monday, August 16, 2010 | View Comments
HARRISON, NJ - AUGUST 11: Thierry Henry  of the New York Red Bulls sits on the bench during the second half against Toronto FC on August 11, 2010 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Red Bulls defeat Toronto 1-0. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

The collective psyche of American soccer fascinates me. While it would be unfair to assign a singular outlook to a group constituted of millions of individuals, there are identifiable threads that run through the community. We're confident in our passion and understanding of the game, so much so that the belittling done by mainstream media here ("the five people that care about soccer") and disdainful media abroad ("Americans are football rubes") drives us insane. But we're also painfully self-aware of where the American game stands both domestically and internationally; this awareness manifests itself as a raging inferiority complex* entirely too often, and sometimes to our own detriment.

It's naturally interesting then, when an amazingly accomplished famous foreign player now suiting up in a kit emblazoned with an American flag declares flatly that the complex doesn't make much sense to him.

Okay, so maybe Titi is just being polite. He's playing here, he admittedly loves New York (and "America", though I wonder how much time he's spent in flyover country), and it follows that he would compliment a soccer culture that is currently affording him a very nice salary. But whether condescending pat on the head or truly-held belief, Henry's got a point. There are plenty of things to be proud of here. Most pointedly, believing as much doesn't necessarily make one naive, myopic, or uninformed. If the standard is one of the biggest leagues in the world, competitions that Americans are lucky enough to get on their televisions each week, then MLS certainly comes up short. But if the standard is simply "people watching/people caring/good players playing" then none of us have anything of which to be ashamed.

I don't really expect Henry to understand, though. Clearly he's identified the complex (through whom might be an interesting question, by the way); but can he really have any appreciation for why it exists or why it might be difficult for us to cast aside? I don't suspect so. The combination of historical factors, foreign influence, and cultural pressures conspire to fill our heads with images of American soccer as a second-rate product. There are just too many nicer versions of the game in evidence via TV and the Internet to allow us to breathe and be happy.

It's almost as if American soccer is kid in the neighborhood with his first car. He worked hard for it, he paid for it himself, and by most measures a very nice car. In the right setting he might show it off proudly, confident that it reflects well on him. There's no reason he should ever need to be ashamed of it.

Except the neighbor a few houses down has a Ferrari. Suddenly the American soccer's hard-won car doesn't look so good anymore.

Step one is to avoid over-doing the self-criticism. If Thierry Henry comes to the US, experiences the league and its fans, and feels the need to wonder out loud why we have such a complex, perhaps Americans are too quick to downplay the league and the fans. We don't need to crow from the rooftops that it's the greatest league in the world (there's room for realism here), but neither do we need to belittle and degrade our own league. I wonder how many potential fans are turned off by MLS followers saying "Our league really isn't very good, but..."

*The most interesting aspect of the inferiority complex situation are those Americans who attempt to separate themselves from the US game at all costs. You know these people - though they're American born and bred, they feel the need to argue about the word "soccer" in blog comment threads.

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