August 2010

A Book Review: Star-Spangled Soccer by Gary Hopkins

In the 1970s the U.S. had books that explained the rules.  Then came the soccer books filled with coaching tips, diagrams of drills and British verbiage.  Next a few biographies–Mia and Brandi.  Finally, the United States has enough experience to justify a few books on soccer history between our borders.

“Star-Spangled Soccer” helps us understand the roadblocks to Major League Soccer becoming a business run by profit-seeking adults and explains how close MLS came to dying at a young age.  Unlike my book, “The First American Soccer Trivia Book”, this book has little time for the players—other than their lawsuit against the league.

It takes us from the last breaths of the NASL through the impact of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and step by step into the opening years of Major League Soccer.  Repeatedly it helps us understand two lessons.  First, without the 1994 World Cup, soccer in the U.S. would be a youth activity without any footprint on the professional sports landscape.  Second, Major League Soccer has succeeded when it has sought an audience of young males instead of families.

The book’s author, Gary Hopkins, rode the waves of soccer interest in this country by living in the soccer business.  A Brit, he takes the opposite stance that Paul Gardner does.  Gardner hates all things English and despises business people running the sport.  Hopkins, without challenging Gardner directly, shows us how Major League Soccer has survived, notably when Lamar Hunt, Phil Anschutz and the Kraft family bought into the league and later saved it from death in 2001.

Hopkins explains the other suits involved.  Most soccer fans have heard of Alan Rothenberg, Sunil Gulati, Don Garber, Ivan Gazidis and Mark Abbott, but fans don’t understand that those guys came up with the keystone single-entity structure, implemented the business policies of the league and made the decisions that overcame declining attendance, declining television ratings and declining team revenue.

Most fans don’t really care about these businessmen.  Soccer fans would rather argue about a higher pay scale to bring in better players, improved coverage on ESPN and the awful look of half-empty stadiums.  So they should care about these men and the league’s construction

This book covers the marriage of soccer people and business people.  It didn’t happen by getting CEOs onto the pitch; it came about when investors realized that they needed the game to flourish in the U.S. in order for their investments to produce returns.  As part of that, they needed to start Soccer United Marketing by investing millions into a secondary soccer endeavor while losing millions in their primary soccer endeavor.

I have to pick on Hopkins a little for his lack of footnotes and vague attributions about SUM and throughout the book.  Also, he rehashes the contention that soccer has to infiltrate inner cities and for the U.S. men to reach the next level of international competition.  Like so many before him, Hopkins neglects proof.  Show me the 25-year-old former superstar who was shunned by organized soccer.

He claims that great sandlot players are not currently seen by scouts or high level coaches.  The fallacy in this theory is that it requires that the Hispanic Henry in Chicago’s South Side doesn’t want to be found.  He doesn’t want to go to the open tryout, doesn’t want to match up against the rich club players and doesn’t want to play professionally.  We have no proof that the next great American player is not getting a chance under current conditions.

Sure, it would be great to expand the base of players by removing the financial requirements to play on club teams.  But the U.S. already has so many youth players compared to other nations right now.  The problem is quality coaching for those kids, which Hopkins barely touches on.

Hopkins does address the soccer fans in the U.S. who prefer foreign leagues.  They need to see quality in MLS.  He addresses how the national programs and U.S. Soccer played big roles, helping and hurting MLS.  Also he outlines the steps to MLS profitability with team-operated stadiums as the first step.

So soccer fans, be warned.  This is not a highlight reel of American soccer.  It’s a history of MLS, the company.

Jamie Clary is a Staff Writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He is also the author of The First American Soccer Trivia Book, a great read, which can be purchased here. He can be reached via Twitter at @soccerprofessor.

Jamie Clary

  • Kevin in Denver

    Sounds like a heckuva read. I better pick it up. Does he address how MLS is hurting our WC chances by not selling the best players?