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Soccer's Long History as America's Sport of the Future

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Much has happened in the last century. We harnessed the power of satellites so we can order delivery pizza without talking to anyone. We invented flying machines, then promptly figured out how we could kill each other with those flying machines. We poisoned our planet. We learned that smoking poisons ourselves. EZ-Pass was invented, thus marking the zenith of human ingenuity. One thing that did not happen, however: Soccer did not become America’s Next Big Thing, despite 100 years of people saying otherwise.

Here is a brief history of soccer as America’s next big sport.

SOCCER: AN ALTERNATIVE TO DEATH BY FOOTBALL

The first time soccer (or, as it was called then, “socker”) was seriously put forward as an American trend was in 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt strayed quite far from his Rough Rider roots by asserting people needn’t die playing American football. This coincided with an American tour by the English team, previewing several decades of good soccer teams coming to America for the privilege of beating us.

The following year, the Washington Post ran an article, “IF NOT FOOTBALL, WHAT,” that argued “socker” was no substitute for American football despite its adoption on several college campuses. The piece made some strong points about “socker” being the true football because “it is altogether a kicking game,” unlike our incorrectly named sport. However, the author noted this would be a major turnoff for most Americans, since we have quite the hand fetish.

Despite the Post’s metacarpals-based claims, soccer indeed experienced a bit of a boom, particularly in St. Louis. In “SOCCER AS MEANS OF GOOD EXERCIZE”—who says clickbait is a new phenomenon?—the Post Dispatch reported “new amateur clubs and leagues are being formed almost weekly.” Although soccer would remain atypically popular in St. Louis for most of the 20th century, it failed to spread far outside the city limits.

EXPORT WAR, IMPORT SOCCER

1916 U.S. Soccer Team, via Wikimedia Commons

About a decade later, America sent most of its able-bodied men to faraway, soccer-loving lands—but not to play soccer. So, a new theory of the sport’s impending popularity sprouted: WWI soldiers will be infected with soccer’s spirit and return to poison us all.

ADOPTION OF GAME AS ARMY RECREATION SHOULD GVE [sic] THE SPORT ITS BIGGEST BOOST,” reported the Detroit Free Press in 1918. The subhead continued the theme: “AFTER PEACE COMES GAME SHOULD BOOM.” As the article states, the government bought up much of the country’s soccer ball supply and shipped them to army camps, “doing all in its power to foster the game amongst its soldiers.” It’s not clear why the Army was so interested in soccer, although the usual pro-soccer arguments of inexpensiveness, ease, and fitness could have been reason enough.

Not much was heard from soccer again in the United States until 1950, when the U.S. experienced its greatest international victory, beating England in the World Cup by the score of 1-0. In 1955, the U.S. soccer booster otherwise known as the US Armed Forces was back at it: “OVERSEAS AIRMEN LEARNING SOCCER, MAY SOON BOOM SPORT BACK IN U.S.” This time, they had a plausible reason for supporting the game: foreign relations.

The idea was quite simple: rather than American soldiers reinforcing the colonial perception of our culture being forced upon others, they would learn from the locals instead. Instead of teaching others how to play baseball or basketball, the soldiers learned to play soccer. This practice was most commonly deployed on the Air Force’s European bases. Lt. Al Aspen Jr., coach of the Air Force European command’s all-star soccer team, told the Daily Boston Globe, “Ten years from now America will be a power in soccer.” Lt. Aspen was a bit off the mark: 11 years later, the United States did not qualify for the 1966 World Cup.

NASL COMMISSIONER PHIL WOOSNAM MAKES CRAZY TALK

NASL's International Stars, via Wikimedia Commons

The next era of soccer threatening to dominate the American way of life began in 1968, thanks to Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League Commissioner who, in his spare time, predicted we will all bow to Socclor, the God of American Soccer.

As you may recall, the NASL had its moment in the sun which, in retrospect, was just the reflected glow from the great eternal sunshine of Pele’s spotless mind. Still, this led Woosnam to say all kinds of crazy things: the United States would contend for the World Cup title in 1990 and be the “center of world soccer” (the U.S. finished last in its group, losing all three games), or the NASL would catch the NFL in popularity by 1985 (the NASL folded in 1984). Woosnam also believed “there’s little doubt the American fan will someday achieve the same emotional frenzy as his counterpart in Brazil and England.” It’s a testament to his “good job, good effort” mentality that this was one of his more accurate predictions.

Woosnam was not the only one to harbor such grandiose visions of American soccer’s future. In 1981, the Boston Globe ran an article about youth soccer’s popularity in New England, in which they interviewed Peter Giannacopoulos, a man largely described by the Greek he shouts at his youth soccer players. Like Woosnam, Giannacopoulos also believed “the American kids coming along now are better than their European counterparts.” If only that were true at the time.

THE BACKLASH

The Face of American Soccer in 1994, via Getty

The decade after the NASL’s collapse was a dark time for American soccer. Optimists became skeptics, skeptics became naysayers, and naysayers basked in their own sense of self-righteousness. For sportswriters, this meant anyone who had previously voiced opposition to soccer as The Next Big Thing became insufferable epicenters of bad logic.

In 1994, Anthony Day of the Los Angeles Times expressed doubt “American audiences can be brought to like a game not susceptible to statistical analysis.” Because Americans love to calculate batting averages and completion percentages, Day thought, they would never embrace a game that rendered their wrist calculators useless. Still, Day promoted soccer as a “rich smorgasbord of styles and tactical concepts,” which would almost surely be lost on the “natives in short pants,” as the Wall Street Journal described American soccer fans in 1989.

Reporters mocked the optimistic youth participation statistics from the 1980s and early 1990s as false alarms. Phil Hersh, a Chicago Tribune columnist, wryly noted: “And wait, here’s a news flash: According to reliable sources, more than 230 million Americans polled last week admitted knowing that a soccer ball is round.” In 2002, the New York Times ran “SOCCER IS STILL NOT A PASSION IN THE U.S.”—as close to “Nothing Continues To Happen” as you’ll ever see in a headline—where Ira Burkow goes on to provide as apt a description of America’s dismissiveness towards soccer as one can find:

“The fact is, while soccer has become popular with some moms and a ton of tots, it seems to lose spectator interest when the children reach adulthood…[baseball, football and basketball] are in our blood the way soccer is for most of the rest of the world...we would need a sports transfusion to change, but regardless of how far the American team advances in this World Cup, the paramedics still appear a long, long way off.”

It just isn’t our thing, they all say.

MODERN TIMES: SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE

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By the time the 1994 World Cup was awarded to the United States, most observers were permanently skeptical of the game’s American hold. Major League Soccer was created as a condition of the 1994 World Cup’s arrival, not purely out of existing interest in the sport. 

The league’s controlled, steady rise, like an old man rising from a tepid bath, was American soccer’s direct response to the NASL’s errors. Don Garber, Commissioner of MLS, is the anti-Woosnam: calculating, reserved, cautious. In an interview for the New York Times in 2007, Garber spoke in business buzzwords: "[MLS] continues to grow in value, which speaks to the investor community that believes soccer has a long-term value as a sports investment.” No “the MLS Cup will be God’s beverage cannister” predictions here.

Just because such brazen predictions aren’t coming from Garber doesn’t mean they aren’t coming at all. “HAS NBC SPORTS FOUND THE SECRET OF SELLING SOCCER TO U.S. TV VIEWERS?” asks The Hollywood Reporter, for instance.

However, there is some reason to believe that this time really is different. Gone are the days where Jack Bell could write a column about satellite TV bringing soccer to the masses, as he did in 2003; we have the internet now, making the game easier to follow than ever. Perhaps, for the first time in American soccer history, there’s more than just youth soccer participation stats to make soccer fans optimistic. Google recently published a report on soccer’s growth in the United States over the last four years, and it is as convincing an argument as American soccer has ever had.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe soccer finally is the Next Big American Thing. If it’s true, then we’re only a century behind.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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