What 'Ted Lasso' actually says about how far American soccer has come

·4 min read

My commitment was unshakable. I would not be watching “Ted Lasso.”

Seven years ago, when the original NBC commercials for its Premier League coverage aired, with Jason Sudeikis introducing the Ted Lasso character, I thought they were cute. I got why they were popular — almost 15 million YouTube views on the original clip and more than 7 million on the follow-up — but they also felt a little trite.

A football coach in charge of a football team! Get it? But it’s not actually the same sport! LOL!

It was all the old chuckles about tackling and ties and flopping and all the rest. When you spend enough time around American soccer, a scene that long retained its ugly-stepsister vibe and struggled with the attendant crisis of self-worth, you begin to cringe at that stuff. It’s what you’ve heard at all the barbecues and (American) football watch parties and conversations with strangers on airplanes or in bars.

Did I really want to watch an entire 10-episode series on that? Hardly.

But then more and more people whose opinions I appreciate, who seemed too smart to fall for the hackneyed “Two and a Half Men”-level shtick, told me to watch it or otherwise professed their enjoyment.

So I caved.

It turns out “Ted Lasso” is a good show.

"Ted Lasso" is actually fairly revealing about how far American soccer and its perception in Europe have come. (Photo by Monica Schipper/WireImage)
"Ted Lasso" is actually fairly revealing about how far American soccer and its perception in Europe have come. (Photo by Monica Schipper/WireImage)

The story of AFC Richmond, an imaginary Premier League team, newly owned by a divorcée who wrested it from her now ex-husband in the settlement, is above all genuinely funny. Determined to spite her philandering ex, the owner fires her manager and hires Lasso, a guileless Division II college football coach who has never been to England or watched any soccer, in order to tank the club.

The writing is breezy and the characters clearly defined, if a little cliched. Sudeikis is at his goofy, jittery best, crafting an endlessly amiable character in Lasso. There are little nods to the hardcore soccer fans, like the American assistant coach reading Jonathan Wilson’s history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, on the plane over to England. Or the character very obviously based on former Manchester United hardman Roy Keane — named Roy Kent, leaving no doubt about the knockoff.

There are things that miss, too, like the story arc about attacking plays drawn up on a whiteboard, soccer’s X’s and O’s equivalent. But there’s no sense in being churlish about it. Pulling off the trick of turning a skit into a full-on sitcom is a feat. Especially when that show slowly builds up momentum and critical praise. It debuted in late August and its full first season has been available to stream on Apple TV since early October, yet seems to be generating more chatter by the week — with a second and third season already commissioned.

What’s particularly remarkable is that the show is groundbreaking in its subject. There hasn’t been a mainstream sitcom about a soccer coach before. Or, for that matter, about soccer. Not in the United States at any rate. And not a show that is written and produced by Americans at that.

Without getting all think piece-y about it, a soccer show finding mainstream success is another genuine step forward for the sport stateside.

The realization hits that, while still reflexively getting annoyed, the old stereotype of Americans not understanding soccer has now become so tired that it can be spun into comedic material. Without giving too much away — and without knowing what happens in future seasons — Lasso, an entirely imagined person, becoming (possibly?) the first American coach to succeed in the Premier League doesn’t feel like such a heavy condemnation anymore. Soccer is part of the American mainstream now.

So many American players are now viewed as genuine rising stars in Europe that the sense of belonging is steadily pushing out the old insecurity about our place in soccer’s firmament. The onus is no longer on America to prove itself in soccer. The need for handwringing is falling away.

So we can laugh at an American and his fictional fecklessness in the holy land of soccer, the Premier League. It’s funny now that a breathtakingly unqualified college football coach should be dropped into such a job. Funny enough as a notion to carry an entire show, and not just a 4-minute skit.

That such a show can exist at all is a testament to how far we’ve come.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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