Midfield General

American Outcasts

Why can’t American soccer fans get any respect, even in their own country?

When YouGov and the Upshot team at The New York Times polled people around the world to find out which World Cup soccer team they most wanted to lose, it was no surprise that the United States came out on top. For decades, foreigners have taken comfort in doing at least one thing better than those darned Americans. But the poll still had a shocker in store: the United States was the most hated team in the United States.

It's not often that one can be a rebel of sorts by supporting one's own country, but this is the case for the American soccer fan. Despite reaching the semifinal in the first World Cup ever, back in 1930, American soccer virtually disappeared from the global stage -- aside from a stunning upset of England in 1950 -- until 1990.

Not surprisingly, given that there were precious few accomplishments for supporters to get excited about, the fan base at that time was extremely small. The United States would often play in front of  a small audience in the inglorious confines of college stadiums. If a large, enthusiastic crowd showed up, it was usually immigrants in support of a rival.

Many elements contributed to this situation, including the numerous homegrown sports competing for the attention of the American fan. There was also a regionalism to the American sporting profile that set people up to have pride in a particular city, rather than an entire nation; the latter was reserved for the Olympics. Even those who loved the sport of soccer itself found it easier to follow other teams that had more regular media coverage.

Technology and the global economy helped to change this. Via the Internet, American fans of soccer and their national team began to exchange information on message boards, watch live streams of faraway games even when major networks refused to air them, and share clips of tricks and goals. Supporters working overseas shared information about Americans playing abroad. These virtual connections helped create a new community of enthusiastic supporters.

Recently, that online world has expanded into the real world. Fans now plan to travel for national team games, meet up for viewing parties, and generally support their national squad the way other countries have for decades upon decades.

One of the most popular supporters' groups, the American Outlaws, has grown exponentially in part by harnessing some of the inherent regional pride of people in the United States. Indeed, some of the most fervent fans are those of Major League Soccer teams in relatively small markets like Portland and Seattle. Outlaws chapters represent these cities, or even specific neighborhoods. Fans are thus gathered together in a common cause without compromising their individual identity.

Part of the appeal is that this American supporter movement is still a work in progress, with a long way to go before it ever reaches the fan frenzy in other countries. Anyone can get in on the ground floor, and doing so offers the chance to do something a little special or different. By contrast, during the World Cup in 2006, the streets of even large cities in Germany, the host country, were deserted while the majority of the population sat inside, watching the games.

But fans of the U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT), to give its full title, are still a minority in their own land. Mexico, the team's longtime CONCACAF rival, schedules matches regularly on American soil. El Tri plays in some of the nation's biggest stadiums, which regularly fill with their fervent followers. In many ways, fans of the USMNT are second-class citizens in their own country, consigned to smaller venues with less commercial promotion. Yet even among what is arguably the country's most numerous group of supporters, American fandom has made inroads; some people have been sporting a hybrid USA/Mexico jersey to represent support for both squads.

There are even the obligatory villains for the USMNT's iconoclastic fans to rail against and despise; they're just not always fans of neighboring countries' teams. Rather, it's Eurosnobs, naysayers and clueless sports pundits of an earlier generation who fuel outrage about how American soccer isn't getting its due. If anything, the American soccer fan movement is overdue, and it's finally on the way.

Carl de Souza / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Russian Soccer's Russian Problem

Are its players getting fat on too much home cooking?

Once upon a time, soccer in Russia was a mysterious black box. Every couple of years, players with mostly unfamiliar names would slip out from behind the Iron Curtain to pit their talents against the best teams in Europe and the world. But after the early burst of outward expansion that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian soccer has puzzlingly turned inward again.

Two decades ago, in the heady Yeltsin years, the United States hosted a World Cup that included four squads made up entirely of players who plied their trade professionally in their home countries. Spain and Italy were among them, and half a dozen other nations had just a sprinkling of foreign-based players. But Russia was more typical, especially among second-tier soccer nations; the majority of its squad played overseas.

Today the contrast is dramatic. At the 2014 World Cup, Russia is the only country to have every member of its squad playing soccer domestically. (England's third-choice goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, plays in Scotland.) Curiously, it seems that Russia is choosing to look inward just as the rest of the world -- almost all of it, at least -- is opening up.

There is no suggestion Russia's experienced coach Fabio Capello is under pressure from the top, but that doesn't mean there aren't economic pressures from elsewhere that are forcing his hand. Russian oligarchs are encouraged to invest their fortunes domestically; it's a high-profile means of returning wealth to the country and entertaining the masses in the process. At its best, a soccer team can be a prestigious and entertaining investment.

Not all of these ventures have been successful, with billionaire Suleiman Kerimov recently withdrawing funding from Anzhi Makhachkala. But whether it's Gazprom-fueled Zenit St. Petersburg or Spartak Moscow with Leonid Fedun's Lukoil billions, investment continues to flow into the Russian Premier League. With big salaries and home cooking on offer, stars such as Yury Zhirkov and Andrey Arshavin have happily returned to the breasts of Mother Russia.

The question to be answered at the World Cup is whether these changes have been good for Russian soccer. The lucrative league has helped to satisfy a demand for local heroes, but it has also created much the same problem that discourages English stars from leaving their own Premier League. When the money's good at home, why leave? The English Premier League remains one of the strongest in the world, but the 0-0-2 English team is hardly setting Brazil on fire.

This is the problem Capello faces, now for the second time. The artificially inflated salaries of Russian players discourage progression. (Arguably, English players also commanded a premium unrelated to their talents -- some would say they still do -- when Capello was in charge of the England squad.) It's not such a pressing issue for his older Russian players, of whom there are many, but talented individuals such as Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin are at an age where they must kick on. That's far from guaranteed while they continue to play in Moscow.

Encouragingly, Kokorin insists he remains a man of ambition. "I don't really think it's a question of money," he says. "I believe a lot of Russia players have a dream to play in Europe for the big clubs. I think it's a question of timing. Everybody is just waiting for offers to come and when a good offer comes I'm sure most of the players will try and take their chance in Europe."

That time will need to come soon. With the World Cup coming to Russia in 2018, there is a huge onus on the likes of Dzagoev and Kokorin to ensure a fiercely proud nation performs creditably when the eyes of the world focus upon them. No one wants a repeat of Russia's abject performance in ice hockey at the Sochi Olympics; Russian nationalism demands better. And yet, the irony remains -- if their country is to enjoy a good World Cup, Russia's stars would be better off leaving.

Sergei Chirikov / AFP / Getty Images