There is nationalism, Arthur Koestler said, and then there is football nationalism, the latter being much more deeply felt.
But soccer nationalism—soccer nationalism is another thing entirely. For a Brit like Will Frears, English football encodes plenty of thinking-man’s-ambivalence about the country itself—its haughty self-regard, its classishness, its sporadic hooliganism. In America, delightfully, conveniently, soccer decodes ambivalence. On the field, the United States is not a superpower but a scrappy younger sibling, not racially strifed but Benetton-harmonious, not stratified by class but unified blandly by a rec-league middle-classness. Soccer isn’t war, it’s much more self-denying than that, something closer to noble pacifism. Americans have tribal instincts, too, though we check them, and soccer nationalism might be our only form of bloodless imperialism—a chance to root for our country when it doesn’t actually mean anything. Soccer loyalty, unlike national loyalty, is lightly-felt and light on its feet; it is a weak nuclear force; it is winning.
Not literally winning, of course. Over the last generation American soccer has climbed out of the realm of the putrid but pitiful and ascended to discourteous mediocrity. This makes us, somehow, only less loveable to the rest of the world. But being an underdog is perhaps the most cherished position in American sports. Here, we actually like surprises, unlike Europeans—whose leagues feature no playoffs, no salary caps, and punish lackluster teams by actually demoting them, like bad students—and all the more so when we’ve been along for the ride. Here, we might even prefer surprises to excellence. And being mediocre means we’re only a lucky break from attaining decency.