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Non-League Day In England: An American Reflects On US Soccer Culture

Horsham Fan
Horsham Fan

Yesterday was non-league day in England, which probably just barely crossed your radar if you are an American. If you're wondering what non-league football is, it's all the semi-pro and grassroots football teams that are operating outside the realm of what is considered "league football": The Premier League, Championship, and Leagues One and Two. If you're curious as to how it all breaks down, an excellent guide can be found here.

The goal of yesterday--when, you may have noticed, no Premier or Championship games were played--was to get supporters of the higher-level football clubs out of the big stadiums and on to the sidelines at the lower levels. What with the financial difficulties in nearly all levels of club football these days, the founders wanted to make a big push to get people to see what they were missing in their big-club bubbles.

I've spoken of my love for non-league football on this site before. I'm not sure just how many Tooting and Mitcham supporters there are in the United States--I'm willing to wager that I could probably count the number on my fingers and toes--and it's a bit tough to follow a team from the lower echelons of football. So why do I do it? Because the experience I had at the game was just so different to any footy match I'd been to. Just a couple weeks before I'd been to the Carling Cup final at Wembley, scalping for a ticket. Now here I was standing by the corner flag, chatting with the player taking the kick. There was an old woman who didn't seem to have a tongue and she was still out at the pitch, sitting on her walker and yelling gibberish. Talk about fandom.

So what does the United States have that compares to this? If I wanted to watch a soccer game near me, where could I go? The closest match for MLS is obviously the Sounders. Moving down a level, we've got the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps, both set to become MLS teams next year (remember, no fairy-tale promotion or heart-rending relegation around here--this is a permanent move). One more level down, and there are six teams, all of which are on the East coast. That's a pretty long drive.

The Premier Development League is the closest that US Soccer gets to having a non-league football system, but it's a pretty poor attempt. Non-league in England is set up to keep the hopes of struggling amateurs alive, allowing teams outside the Football League to advance through the ranks and take a place as pros. These players really are amateurs, working another job and playing football on the sides. For the most part, they know that this is the only chance they'll have.

In the United States, on the other hand, the Premier Development League is more or less a way for college students to show off for scouts while retaining their amateur status (and scholarships). It speaks volumes of football in this country, of the way that players aren't groomed at a young age, of the way they still need to catch someone's eye even at that old age of twenty.

If I wished to go to a PDL match, there are five Washington clubs to choose from, including the Washington Crossfire, which play right in Seattle. Of course, they only play in the summer, so I'm a bit late for that. Also, I just moved to Portland, and so my only choice would be the Portland Timbers U-23 team. Any Oregonians outside Portland who want to see these sorts of matches are out of luck.

What's my point? MLS is barely drawing enough in some markets to keep it alive. We can't be looking to establish hundreds of tiny little clubs just because I want to go freeze my toes off standing on the edge of the pitch watching some guy in a bee costume chat with a player warming up before the half. But rather than starting at the top and working our way down, this sort of system starts at the bottom, from people simply just wanting to play soccer, and then works its way up.

Thousands of words have been spilled over the lack of soccer culture here in the U.S. All I want to add is this: Encourage soccer, in whatever form you find it. Yesterday my mom asked about the way I coped with Timbers supporters in Portland. I hissed, in much the same manner I imagine I would hiss about scum fans if I were in Birmingham, but she made an excellent point: didn't I want to see soccer, even if it was green and gold soccer, succeed?

I may not like living amongst the Timber Army, but my Sounders sporting life would be so much less exciting without a rivalry. Think of what it could be like if we had layers upon layers of rivalry. What if we could take a walk to the nearest football pitch, rather than jump in the car? What if our children are choosing from five local clubs rather than looking forward to the annual trip to see the MLS team play? I've been accused of being way too English in my thoughts about soccer, but really, I'd like nothing more than to see the madness overtake this country. I want pickup games on every empty field. I want fierce debates in the bars. I want to be able to support multiple clubs without taking a tour of the world to do so.

A footy lovers fantasy, perhaps. But as someone crazy once said, "It only takes the spark of insanity to light the fire of perpetual madness."