Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does: Part I

Why don’t Americans play, or watch, soccer? Yes, I know perfectly well that soccer is indeed a thing in America. In fact, if you look closer, it turns out that it always has been, to some extent. But hyperbole aside, soccer is not a major sport in America (and speaking of hyperbole, the name “Major League Soccer” is best interpreted as aspirational rather than descriptive).

Why, for that matter, does the rest of the world play and watch soccer? This too is somewhat hyperbolic. There are parts of the world where soccer is not that big a deal. Indeed, there are some pretty important parts. I’m not talking just about Antarctica. But again, hyperbole aside, soccer is the most popular team spectator sport in the world. While this might seem to be simply the natural order of things, it is just as legitimate to ask why the rest of the world plays this game as it is to ask why America does not.

The complement to both these questions is to note that instead of soccer, America has American football: a game which is played nowhere else. Even Canada has its own variant. (And yes, I know that there is an audience for American football outside the US. But I also note the lack of success of NFL Europe.)

These questions are the centerpiece of American exceptionalism (sports edition). There are other distinctive features of American sporting culture, but they pale in comparison. We play baseball while much of the world plays cricket, but other part of the world play baseball too, and cricket is nothing like so widespread as soccer. So America and baseball isn’t an example of exceptionalism: basketball and (ice) hockey even less so. Football stands out.

This is a big topic: far too big for a single blog post. I am currently projecting this to run at least five parts. We’ll see. This first installment is the throat-clearing part. Please bear with me.

First some housekeeping. Vocabulary has the potential to distract. The word “football” is claimed by multiple parties, and they can be protective of it. The word is widespread because premodern football spun off multiple variants and subvariants. The version played worldwide, a/k/a the beautiful game, is the version codified by the Football Association, founded in 1863. “Soccer” is a late 19th century English nickname for it, derived from the common abbreviation “Assoc.” (Compare this with “ruggers” for Rugby football.) This was just a random bit of slang, but it was enthusiastically adopted in America to distinguish Association football from “American football.” In American English “soccer” is the standard term, with no derogatory, or even informal, connotations, and Americans who object to the usage are widely (and correctly) dismissed as pretentious twits. I will be using it in this series because, well, American English is my dialect, and while I may be a pretentious twit, I express this in other ways.

It wouldn’t do to therefore assign “football” to the version played by the NFL. This would be fine for a lot of discussions, but when the different football versions played through time and space are discussed a simple “football” would introduce ambiguity. So what to call it? There isn’t really a great answer. Some non-Americans call it “gridiron” but this is mostly perplexing to Americans. We sometimes refer to the playing field as the gridiron, but never the game. (Even for the field this usage is mysterious. The explanation is that for a period in the early 20th century there were lines running lengthwise, as well as the familiar crosswise lines every five yards). So I will settle for the clunky but unambiguous (until some smart aleck says “But isn’t Canada part of America”?) “American football.”

Next is the matter of what sort of answer I will be giving. Sports culture is a part of broader culture, so a sports culture question should be examined in the broader cultural context. But there are blind alleys to avoid. There is a long tradition of discussions along the lines of “baseball is better suited to the American character than is cricket because Americans are an energetic people, and demand a faster game than cricket.” Or it could go the other way, explaining how the English prefer cricket due to some superior national characteristic. Either way, this is twaddle: a classic example of a technique that explains everything, and therefore explains nothing; and is invariably made to flatter one’s prejudices.

My approach is straightforwardly historical. The NFL of 2016 is more popular than MLS of 2016 because the NFL of 2015 was more popular than MLS of 2015. Repeat for 2015 and 2014. And so on. People watch and play what they are used to watching and playing, and they pass these habits on to the next generation. The question “Why do Americans prefer American football over soccer?” is really a historical question, “Why, at an early date, did the one version become established over the other?”

To bring this home, we need an additional concept: team sports seasonal niches. There are, in a temperate climates, three niches for team sports: for summer, fall, and winter.

A summer sport tends to be comparatively leisurely. Running around for three hours in July is a good way to get heat stroke. Better to have a game where you get a chance to sit down and drink. Baseball and cricket are the notable examples.

The fall is more suited to a game with lots of constant movement, making cool fall weather bracing rather than frigid. You might get lucky, but baseball and cricket in October are poor bets for being fun. You are likely to find yourself standing exposed to the elements wishing the ordeal would simply end. Football, in its innumerable variants, is the classic fall sport. Another is the hurling/shinny/hockey family.

Summer and fall team sports have been around forever. The winter niche is newer. It has two sub-niches: outdoors and indoors. The outdoors variety arose in the mid-19th century, combining a general trend for team sports and a fad for ice skating. Ice baseball was a genuine thing for several decades. Outdoor winter team sports really took off when some Canadian boy genius tried playing hockey on ice skates. (OK, that is vastly oversimplified, but then again exactly what happened and when is unclear, at least to me.) The indoor version of winter sports came a bit later. Once you have large indoor spaces and good artificial lighting you can create team sports designed to be played indoors. They inevitably tried to adapt baseball. Indoor baseball was a genuine thing for a few decades until it moved back outdoors and evolved into modern softball. The two indoor games that stuck were basketball and volleyball.

Why no spring niche? Because spring, in the relevant climes, is an unpredictable alternation of winter and, well, not winter. You can have a beautiful spring day, where it would be criminal to spend it indoors, and then the next day get a foot of snow. It’s hard to plan around this. In practice spring is given to summer sports, getting games in when the weather allows.

At this point the seasonal niches are mostly due to habit. We could build indoor ballparks and play baseball in Canada in January, if we really wanted to. We do in fact play ice hockey when it is sweltering outside. And finances can be a wonderful inducement to withstand discomfort, leading to the English Premier League’s nine-month long season. The seasonal aspect is stronger in a historical discussion, when they lacked the technology to fight the season, and at this point is mostly tradition. But traditional is far from nothing. Remember the USFL.

I have described niches in relation to the seasons in Europe and North America. In a tropical zone your seasons might be wet and dry, and if you are doing anything outdoors it is going to be in the dry season. Had world sporting culture arisen in a tropical climate it would have played out differently. But it arose in temperate climates and got shoved, sometimes awkwardly, into everywhere else.

Seasonal niches give us a framework for comparing like with like. We know this intuitively. We don’t ask why America has American football when much of the world plays cricket. We compare American football with soccer, and baseball with cricket

The second, and less obvious, point of seasonal niches is that once organized sports develop, and especially once they become spectator sports funded by gate receipts, there is a strong tendency for any given niche to have only one occupant. Spectator sports benefit from networking effects. People want to discuss the game at the water cooler the next day. And while there will always be that guy who wants to talk about the Real Madrid game, the other guys roll their eyes and go back to discussing the Redskins. Once one sport wins the niche, the others get marginalized.

The exception to the rule that there can be only one would seem to be basketball and hockey. This is only somewhat true, and not only because I have divided the winter niche into two parts (though that is important to the historic development of both sports). For all that the NHL would like there to be the big four American sports, there actually are the big three, with hockey a distant fourth. You can see this where the rubber meets the road: franchise value.
Note the complete absence of the NHL from the top 50 most valuable franchises. Hockey manages to hang on without being marginalized like, say, professional softball because it has a bastion of support to the north, where it is a much bigger deal than basketball. While hockey is a quasi-exception, the rule still generally stands.

So putting this together, I am going to restate the questions. At the beginning of this piece I asked why Americans don’t play, or watch, soccer; why the rest of the world does; and why instead, America has its own unique version of football. In light of the above throat-clearing, here are the restatements:

(1) Why, in America, is the fall-season team sport niche occupied by a sport played nowhere else, American football?

(2) Why, in much of the world, is the fall-season team sport niche (or its nearest equivalent) occupied by a single game, Association football?

Part II will discuss the English origin of organized football and how it split into competing codes. Part III will discuss how in America one of these codes came to dominate, and almost simultaneous was altered almost beyond recognition. Part IV will return to England for the rise of the Football Association. Part V will cover how Association football spread to much of the rest of the world. Should I be so moved, I might add a Part VI of semi-informed speculation about the future.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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43 thoughts on “Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does: Part I

  1. “The fall is more suited to a game with lots of constant movement, making cool fall weather bracing rather than frigid. … Football, in its innumerable variants, is the classic fall sport”

    American football has lots of constant movement? for whom?

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    • In its earlier versions. Think along the lines of a no-huddle offense.

      The heart of the argument in this series is about path dependencies. With modern climate controlled roofed stadiums, there is no longer any reason for the various sports to follow their traditional seasons beyond path dependency.

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      • Also, prior to WWII, American football still had vestiges of the extreme aversion to substitution that it inherited from Association football, and “ironman” was the norm, as opposed to being a script hook for a movie that gets stars out of their comfort zones, like Kathy Ireland trying to kick field goals, or Scott Bakula trying to act.

        So think of it as a no-huddle offense, in which the same 11 guys then turn around and try to defend against a no-huddle offense.

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        • It wasn’t so much an aversion to substitution as a default assumption. All team sports started out with no substitutions, or only for injuries. Baseball didn’t allow substitutions except for injuries until the late 1880s. Before then, when a player was injured the substitute would go into the club house and change into his uniform.

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  2. Does most of the world play cricket? Perhaps by population because of India but are there are any non-former British colonies that enjoy the sport? As far as I can tell, cricket is big in India, Pakistan, Australia, Caribbean Countries, New Zealand, the UK and Singapore and not much anywhere else. I don’t even think the Canadians play it with zeal.

    Baseball is a big sport in the United States, Canada, Japan, and much of Central America.

    I suspect European football (aka Soccer) will become more popular as more moms say no to football because of the head injury issue. Youth soccer is already bigger than youth football in large sections of the United States (the Midwest and Texas) seems to be the exception.

    Why do you think Basketball did better as a sport abroad than American Football and Baseball? Is it that Basketball is a relatively cheap sport and a very urban sport?

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    • I think this is correct about cricket: it’s played in a similar number of countries as the other second-tier Commonwealth sport, rugby, but cricket caught on in India and rugby didn’t, giving cricket a much larger share of world population.

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    • You are stepping on Part V, and Part VI if I go there. You are right about cricket. It is strictly a former British Empire thing, and only certain parts of the Empire. There is virtually no overlap between cricket and baseball. The more interesting observation is that there is, outside of Britain itself, there is only limited overlap between cricket and soccer. But this is for Part V.

      As for the future of football, the head injury issue is the potential foot in the door for soccer. But this isn’t a certain thing. I think that American football will cease to be something that white middle class kids play, but it is less clear how this will affect it as a spectator sport, since non-white lower class kids will still have a strong incentive to step up and take a spin of the wheel. This is Part VI.

      Basketball is an interesting question. I don’t know a great deal about the history of international basketball, so I am just spitballing this, but my guess is that it stepped into a vacant “winter team sport” niche.

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      • Basketball is the winter sport for countries without an actual winter. ;)

        I think that basketball and soccer both grew big because they require little in the way of equipment, so are great sports for developing nations.

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        • Basketball is the winter sport for countries without an actual winter. ;)

          This actually has a lot of truth to it. It generally sucks to be outside in the winter because, well, it is friggin’ cold. But if you have snow or hard ice, then you can go skiing or skating or build a snow fort for a snowball fight. These activities are fun enough to more than make up for the friggin’ cold part. The problem is that there is a huge middle space where you can’t count on the snow or hard ice, at least not reliably, but where it is amply cold to be unpleasant. Therefore, basketball, which turned out to be popular enough in some places to move back outdoors.

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          • I think the lack of equipment angle is a good one.

            Football started as a working-class sport in England. Cricket was a middle class to posh sport. Football requires a ball, two nets, shorts, a shirt, and some kind of gear for the shoe. Cricket requires a bat and other equipment and really fancy uniforms.

            Baseball requires bats, balls, helmets and uniforms.

            Basketball requires one or two nets, a court, and a ball. You can do shirts v. skins. If you go around NYC, you will always see people playing b-ball on small public courts. Finding room for baseball diamonds and football fields is tougher.

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            • Football started as a working-class sport in England. Cricket was a middle class to posh sport.

              Neither of these statements is quite correct. I’ll be covering the rise of English football clubs in parts 2 and 4. The working class was part of this, but it was the gentry that drove early organized football. Early cricket cut across class lines, in those regions where it was popular. It rose to prominence as an organized sport in the early 18th century when the high nobility adopted it as a medium for high stakes gambling. They played the game, but for the really high stakes matches generally had the good sense to hire the best professionals, regardless of class. Clubs such as the Marylebone CC came a few decades later, essentially as a way for the merely wealthy to get in on the action by pooling their gambling funds.

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    • Simplified answer: they play cricket where the merchant sailors were British (West Indies, subcontinent, ANZAC) and baseball where they were American (Latin America, Japan, Korea).

      As for basketball, I think it thrives because it’s only indirectly competing – baseball and cricket both take similar amounts of space and equipment, as do the football codes relative to each other (exception: American/Canadian, but you can still play touch/flag with no pads). While basketball is cheap, indoor, and you can play in all weathers – it’s really competing against indoor ice sports rather than any of the outdoor sports.

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  3. Define “don’t play”. The Denver metro area is simply rotten with soccer complexes, all heavily used. My suburb built theirs on a flood plain that couldn’t be otherwise developed: eight full-size pitches, and 20+ smaller ones for younger kids (all the way down to a couple of tiny ones for the three- and four-year olds). Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has a main pitch with 18,000 seats and all the usual stadium amenities, plus 24 other pitches. Aurora claims they can mark out at least 12 full-sized pitches at their complex. A few of the pitches are artificial turf for year-round use, and indoor 7-on-7 soccer is played year-round. Leagues for everything from the tots to full-on serious adults to tottering oldsters. Lots of places where you can drop in and be assigned to a team for pick-up games.

    From high-school up, football is still the glamour sport with the biggest stadiums and TV coverage. But lord, it’s not what the people are out playing.

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    • Define “don’t play”.

      Oh, it is certainly hyperbole. I confessed to that in the piece. Interesting things are going on with soccer in the US. How this will play out is not at all clear to me.

      If you prefer, change the question about not playing by adding an “until recently.”

      As an addendum, I am totally not anti-soccer. I played it as a kid through the YMCA. Both my kids play it through a local soccer association. But soccer, particularly as a spectator sport, simply does not have the cultural mindshare of American football, baseball, or basketball. It is perhaps comparable to hockey, but even that is disputable. I am uninterested in a “why soccer sucks” discussion, for many reasons not the least of which is that soccer doesn’t suck. But a discussion of why this non-sucky sport isn’t a bigger deal than it is? That is an interesting topic.

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      • In the US, for the last 50 years, consumption of professional sports has largely been by means of television. This is unsurprising; today’s 32 NFL teams and 330 million people mean most are priced out by time and money from ever seeing a live game. The US television model was, until recently, a commercial break every few-to-several minutes. My understanding is that 50 years ago, this model was relatively unique in the world. American football was already a good fit, and certainly at the pro level, the league(s) were willing to make accommodations.

        So, a fortuitous — or not — combination. A TV model that required a game that could be easily broken up into few-minute chunks, and a game that fit that mold that needed TV coverage to expand the revenues.

        (Going to the stadium and watching an NFL game these days is an interesting experience. There’s an unbelievable amount of dead time: players jogging back to the huddle or to/from the sidelines at the end of a play; long delays following change of possession (commercials are running); video review; time outs; injuries. I gained an appreciation for how hard the director and announcers are working to fill those gaps.)

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        • That’s my understanding how football became more big than baseball to. Football was a big deal since the 1890s but it was a big deal at the high school and college level. Professional football existed but it wasn’t popular until television provided a good match because you could place commercials in a lot easier with football games than baseball or basketball games.

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          • I am bemused by the implication that baseball lacks natural breaks in which to insert commercials.

            Television is certainly crucial in the rise of professional football, but I would state it in terms of American football being an ideal television sport. Face it: it kind of sucks as a live event, if you want to see what the hell is going on in the game. It is great as a communal experience, which ties in with its earlier popularity as a school sport. But you can’t actually see the plays. Television changed that. Even with the TV coverage we had when I was a kid you could really follow the action, and it has gotten better as cameras improve and grow more numerous, with high definition and super slow-motion instant replay.

            Baseball, on the other hand, is a great live sport, but kind of sucks on television. In person you get both the communal experience and you can actually see what is going on. Not everything, but well enough. The leisurely pace is not so much of a problem in person. There usually is plenty of sensory input. But on TV there is an awful lot of talking heads filling what would otherwise be essentially dead air. I prefer baseball on the radio. If I am near a computer I may pull up a highlight play, but then again I may not.

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              • Baseball games are a much more localized form of entertainment (note how most major franchises have their own local cable channel), opposed to American football, which, due to its schedule and timing tends to be more nationalized in its audience. So you get enormously big sponsors for football games, but less often, as opposed to baseball games where you often see local advertisers who are big fish in the area, but not huge nationally.

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                • There’s a bit of the inherent difference between a sport that the physical toll means you can only play about once a week, vs one that you can play twice a day every so often.

                  But a lot of it was also the singular effort and vision of Pete Rozelle. The NFL radio broadcasts, for example, are still team based.

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        • The first time a US soccer league had a major TV contract, there were studio-dictated commercial breaks – signaled to the referee, who would then stop the action and the clock until given the all-clear. And the teams were all European sides on their summer break, here to earn more money while drinking and sleeping with groupies while an ocean away from their wives. And to think that there were a few people surprised when it all failed…

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    • Soccer is huge among adults in my area as well, although to be fair it is one of the traditional hotbeds.

      The thing is, it has a lot going for it that makes it a great amateur sport – you don’t need a lot of equipment, you can get by even in an organized league with one referee, every high school has a proper field that isn’t being used most of the year, and injuries that would cost you time from work are relatively rare, oh, and you can play in mixed company at most skill levels. Only one of these is true for full-contact American football.

      I hear that, in Seattle, there is a fairly committed group that plays pick-up Australian football, which sounds like a blast even if it would be somewhat constrained on a normal US-sized field. Unfortunately, the meeting place is over an hour from where I live here in 1980s Seattle.

      Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate to ratings points. MLS isn’t going away, and the Sounders will have sellouts until they have multiple seasons where they suck on ice, and possibly not even then. But I don’t see a path to entering “Big Three (apart from NASCAR)” status. It would take soccer becoming not the sport that kids play but the sport that kids breathe, and that’s not going to happen here.

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      • Soccer was HUGE in Pittsburgh, until the televisions came. (Think about it: these were all European folks who played it back home — and a ball’s cheap, and works for any day that’s not subzero. And maybe even then — Pittsburgh ran a marathon while it was snowing, once).

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  4. Doesn’t one also have to consider that until roughly the Superbowl era, the American indoor spectator sport was boxing and the American outdoor spectator sport was horse racing? (and baseball).

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    • I didn’t really go into this, but team sports have a different dynamic from non-team sports, and seem in many ways to occupy a different domain. My hypothesis is that sports teams acquire institutional continuity that affects fan behavior, garnering intense loyalty, with families rooting for the same team for generations. Individual sports don’t have that. You might be a fan of a particular boxer, but his career lasts only so long. In other words, rooting for laundry turns out to be a strength. Horse racing and boxing, while very big deals a century ago, weren’t really in competition with team sports, or to the extent that they were it was in a more “competing for general entertainment/gambling dollars” way than a “competing for hearts and minds” way.

      Hence my argument that you have certain team sports niches, and you have to compare like with like to construct a coherent thread.

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      • I’ve said this before, I think – I’ve met some expats who are supporters of the same team that I have adopted. To a one, they were incredulous. To them, their team loyalty is practically something they inherited, like hair color or hemophilia. The idea that someone would, given free choice, choose to bear that particular cross was not something they’d ever considered.

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          • Yah. Even in the UK, someone from outside the catchment who supports Man U is seen (even by the players!) as having at least a whiff of glory-chasing about them.

            Earlier this year, I spent a real interesting hour in a parking lot talking with a guy I’d just finished playing a soccer game against – his team wore green, so he had a shirt from his childhood team (Hibernian, from Edinburgh). I had the red shirt of my adopted team (Leyton Orient, late of the lowest division in the English League). He recognized it, since he’d spent time in Cambridge at school and had picked up kind of a secondary interest, and – like the weekend league we play in – you tend to run into the same opponents year after year. Both of our proxy teams would, in fact, end up in the two places just outside last season’s playoffs…

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  5. Exactly. My hometown competes at the top level in two major sports, and has significant time spent in another (the team moved – this is something else unheard of outside of the USA and Milton Keynes), plus a lot of years in two majorish sports.

    In something like 150 competitive seasons during my lifetime (among all teams combined), we have two championships(*). Is it really unfair to look upon people who only got on the bandwagon when those championships were either imminent or already accomplished as being somewhat of a flag chaser?

    (*) No, I don’t count the Seattle Totems championship in the Spanish Flu season as being real. It was well before my lifetime, anyway, since it was in, what, 1916? And were they even the Totems then? I’m not even sure of that…

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  6. I’d totally watch a special in which NFL All-Stars & EPL All-Stars competed in *some athletic competition or other* (perhaps chosen on the day?!), not to include football or football. Or, come to think of it, basketball, baseball, cricket, or rugby. That would be fascinating.

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  7. A cricket match would be perfectly fair in the sense that it’s very unlikely any of the EPL All Stars would know the game. The majority are foreigners (*), and few to none of the Englishmen playing come from schools where cricket would have been played

    (*) in 2010, watching on TV the Champions League final, Inter Milan against Bayern, I noticed there was not a single Italian in ami.an’s opening roster of players. They won 2-0.

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    • There is surprisingly little overlap of soccer and cricket, outside of Britain itself. There is more overlap than between cricket and baseball, but much less that you would expect were it a random thing. I will get into this in part 5.

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  8. Pingback: Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does Part II | Ordinary Times

  9. Pingback: Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does Part III | Ordinary Times

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