I grew from a Dallas Cowboys fan to a soccer nut. It's more American than football.

With the World Cup happening around us, now might be a good time to speak to you on behalf of the millions of Americans who grew up watching football and then, in their middle years, became soccer nuts.

Well, maybe not millions. But certainly thousands. Or, tens.

Actually, there aren’t many of us. Soccer is a sport loved largely by people who grew up with it. This includes immigrants who brought it from their home countries, but also surging numbers of young people who were born here, played soccer as kids and love it as adults.

You see them in the crowds at Major League Soccer games, which can sometimes take on the air of intern date nights. You see them on social media ranting, raving, discussing, dissecting, analyzing and predicting all things soccer.

With the exception of a few longtime soccer journalists, it’s mostly people in their 20s and 30s. OK, sometimes their parents.

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My peers treat me as if I am speaking in Slovenian

The higher you go up the age scale, though, the fewer people care about soccer. When I try to get in a word about it with 60-something contemporaries, they treat me as if I am speaking in Slovenian. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they give me a plaintive little talk about how soccer came along too late for them. And sometimes they just get up and walk away.

All this makes me, as someone who straddles both worlds, something of an oddity. I am one of the few people who can explain how and why someone who grew up in Texas as a Dallas Cowboys fan, and spent 50 years watching the NFL and college football, now sees football as a pretty cool sport – but not as cool as soccer.

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U.S. fans at the World Cup on Nov 29, 2022, in  Doha, Qatar.
U.S. fans at the World Cup on Nov 29, 2022, in Doha, Qatar.

As far as the hows, it was, like learning a language, a lengthy process, but not a difficult one. I got started by tuning into World Cups, making a point to care about soccer once every four years, much as I would care about gymnastics or the giant slalom for a couple of weeks when the Olympics rolled around.

Things started to change after the 2010 World Cup when I found myself wanting more, and I set out to figure out what the players did between these quadrennial confabs.

Through a lens of red white and blue

Much to my delight, the answer was: quite a lot. The very next summer the men’s team would play in a regional tournament known as the Gold Cup, The women would play in the Women’s World Cup. There would be “friendlies” as well sprinkled through the year.

Soon, it wouldn’t be enough simply to watch the national teams. I would have to follow the best American players in their day jobs, which were in leagues around the world. And that is what kicked me down the rabbit hole of European league soccer.

Wisconsin-born Jesse Marsch, manager of Leeds United, talks to his American players, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, on Oct. 16, 2022, in Leeds, United Kingdom. They'd reunite on the U.S. team at the World Cup.
Wisconsin-born Jesse Marsch, manager of Leeds United, talks to his American players, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, on Oct. 16, 2022, in Leeds, United Kingdom. They'd reunite on the U.S. team at the World Cup.

These days I watch leagues in England, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, as well as the MLS and the National Women’s Soccer League. If that seems excessive, I can assure that it most certainly is. In my defense, I can say that my viewing is somewhat intermittent, and done entirely through a lens of red, white and blue.

I root for the clubs that have American players and against the ones that don’t. When one of ours switches clubs, I switch allegiances. The only club that I might be developing something of an affection for is the English side Leeds United. It not only has Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson, two of the players who featured prominently for us at the World Cup, but also Wisconsin-born coach Jesse Marsch, who seems like the TV character Ted Lasso in all ways except for the fact that he actually knows the sport.

American values, American psyche

Which brings me to the whys of becoming a soccer nut. After all this watching, it eventually dawned on me that in a bizarre way, and despite its shallow roots in this country, soccer is the sport that best represents American values and the American psyche.

While I still enjoy American football, I’ve begun to see it as as remarkably hierarchical. Each and every offensive and defensive formation and play is called by coaches on the sidelines. And, while quarterbacks are delegated a fair amount of decision-making discretion, others are more closely executing instructions.

Bill Belichick, the legendary coach of the New England Patriots, sums up football with his famous, if somewhat damning, motto that he repeats to his players: “Do your job.”

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Soccer in contrast is more about individual responsibility, and it asks players to be improvisational and strategic in their play. With coaches left to gesticulate wildly on the sideline, players make rapid-fire decisions on what they should do with the ball, if they have it, and where they should position themselves if they don’t.

It demands that players be quarterbacks at some moments, receivers at others and chess players all of the time.

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The U.S. loss to Netherlands was a perfect example. If you cut out all of the goals and watched the other 85 minutes, you’d say that we were better. We had more possession, more shots on goal, greater passing accuracy, more corner kicks and fewer fouls.

But the Dutch beat us with innovation and opportunism. They were happy to let us dominate whole sections of the game, waiting for the right moment to strike with a couple of perfectly placed passes that put the ball in the box for a relatively easy shot.

It is things like this that are so hard to explain to football fans used to coach-driven play and the reality that the team that hustles is generally the team that wins. But it is also things like that prompting me in my dotage to follow the beautiful game.

That, and maybe because it allows me to pretend I’m hip, cool and young.

Dan Carney is a former USA TODAY editorial writer.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup made me a soccer fan: Why it's more American than football