For club or country?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

For soccer fans around the world, the summer of 2021 has had something to offer for just about everyone. To recap: 

Things kicked off on the club level with the UEFA Champions League Final on May 29, which saw two clubs with global brands,  Chelsea and Manchester City, fight it out in close-knit match, with Chelsea holding on for 1-0 victory.  The annual, high-profile match is always a lock to draw high viewership around the world.  For Americans, this year’s final had the added appeal of two Americans being rostered by the competing clubs, both of whom have ties to Pennsylvania: Coatesville born Zack Steffen was on the bench for Manchester City, and Christian Pulisic, who hails from Hershey, was subbed on in the 66th minute for Chelsea.  This added element may or not have been a contributing factor to this match being the highest viewed Champions League Final in the U.S in the past six years, drawing an average of 2.10 million viewers on CBS.  

The action switched to the international game later that week with CONCACAF holding the semi-finals and final of its inaugural Nations League competition (June 3 and 6 respectively) as well as completing its first round of World Cup qualifying.  The Nations League final produced one of the most memorable USA-Mexico matches of all time with Christian Pulisic slamming home a penalty-kick in extra-time, putting USA ahead 3-2, which ended up being the final score.  Those who stayed up on East Coast were rewarded with an action packed soccer match, which with all the on-field drama and theatrics could have been mistaken for a Mexican telenovela at times (most notably referee’s John Pitti’s awarding of the USA’s penalty-kick in extra time; you can’t make this stuff up)

The very next day saw El Salvador, Canada, St. Kitts and Nevis, Panama, Curacao and Haiti all punch their tickets into the second round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, games that were all available to watch via Paramount+.  

That same week also featured AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying matches with AFC wrapping up its second round, with World Cup regulars South Korea, Japan and Australia all qualifying for the 3rd and final round, while CONMEBOL completed its Match days 7 and 8, with the likes of Argentina and Brazil continuing to their unbeaten qualifying runs.  Again, with most of these matches available on various streaming services and cable TV channels. 

World Cup Qualifying action for the summer concluded with CONCACAF’s 3rd round, which saw Canada, El Salvador and Panama clinch their places in the final Octagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying.  

All of this action went down even before the two biggest international tournaments of the summer kicked-off: the Euros and Copa America.   

Back to the club game?

For a month straight, soccer fans around the world had the pleasure of being able to tune in, nearly every day of the week, and watch world class players represent their countries.  Having these two tournaments occurring in the same year, which happens but not that frequently, is the next best thing to a World Cup summer.  

For Americans, this robust amount of international soccer was sandwiched in the middle of our domestic league’s regular season, which took, roughly, a three week break to accommodate some of these international fixtures.  The Gold Cup is still taking place, but we’re also right back into the thick of the MLS regular season.    

With this robust amount of both international and club soccer taking place this summer, I started pondering the question: what is better?  The international game or the club game?  

In regards to which I enjoy more, the answer is ‘it’s a tie’.  Both the international and club aspect of soccer complement one another in such a way that I wouldn’t want one without the other.  The fact that these two mediums exist for which I can get my soccer fill is beautiful.  The fact that both mediums intertwine throughout the year and feature the same superstars wearing different jerseys provides an element that isn’t available in other American sports; or at least isn’t available on the same scale.  

Growing up in America in the 90’s and early 2000’s, I wasn’t exposed to much professional club soccer.  The MLS came about in ’96, but that league wasn’t remotely on my radar at that time.  It was the four major American sports leagues of the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA that dominated my sports world.  

Neither of those sports (football, hockey, baseball and basketball) have a robust international aspect that can compare to soccer.  Yes, hockey and basketball are played around the world and have international tournaments (the most important of which being the Olympics every four years), and baseball has the world baseball classic but players aren’t being pulled away from their club teams on a regular basis to compete in international games in the same capacity that soccer players are. Additionally, the clubs themselves aren’t competing in any other competitions outside of their regular season and playoff formats; there’s no champions league for football teams to compete in because the NFL is the football league in the world. 

It wasn’t until I avidly started following club soccer, which for me began circa 2005 watching Premier League games on Fox Soccer Channel and Champions League games on ESPN that I started appreciating the global game for what it is.   Seeing the stars of those leagues the next summer at the World Cup in Germany in 2006 (which for me is still my favorite World Cup to date), I started developing an understanding of how both club and country contribute to the international appeal of the game.  

Fast forward to this year, and were seeing this dynamic on a robust scale right here at home with MLS teams fielding international players who are talented enough to crack their home countries’ international squad.  As a Union fan, it’s fun to see the likes of Jose Martinez, Andre Blake and Corey Burke sport a Venezuela or Jamaica jersey a week after they take the field for Philadelphia (though I’ll say I’m looking of forward to having the full squad back).

This is a dynamic that other American sports fans don’t really get to experience with their team’s players. And having been a fan of those other sports teams, I have strong appreciation for the international element that soccer provides. 

That all speaks to the ‘which is more enjoyable’ question.

In regards to which is better, If you look at it from an on-field product standpoint, I don’t really think you can argue that the best soccer is produced at the club level, specifically in Europe.  Players and coaches can develop a rapport with one another on a weekly basis and have much more time to perfect the style and system in which they want to play.  And there’s the obvious aspect of players having the ability to choose for whom and with whom they want to play, as compared to the international game where you play for the country in which you’re born (for the most part).  

But there’s also the off-field aspect to consider.  One’s fandom for their regional club is certainly different than one’s fandom for their national team.  But is one better than the other?  

I think most fans would agree that the pinnacle of soccer in terms of atmosphere and prestige is the World Cup.  But if you asked, for instance, a collection of Tottenham Hotspur fans in London ‘if you can only have one: Spurs win the Premier League or England win the World Cup? I’m not so sure it’d be a unanimous ‘England win the World Cup’.  

All these questions have but subjective answers.  Soccer in and of itself is a very subjective game.  

With all that in mind, what part of the game is your favorite: Club or Country? 


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    It used to be country before I had a club to root for. Now it is club because it’s hard to root for players on other MLS teams when they are playing for the national team. I’ll still enjoy most of the international tournaments (although I’m not bothering watching the B teams in the Gold Cup) but I don’t go to international games when they are so much more expensive than Union games.

  2. Delco Roots says:

    I more thoroughly enjoy club soccer, mostly for the reasons you stated in your article. Also, I felt the most recent generation of USMNT weren’t very likable. I was not emotionally attached to the USMNT over the last 15 years. I hope this current generation brings me back.

  3. UsMNT hasn’t been enjoyable until recently after a 3-4 year or more dip for me. The Union, despite the heartache of the early years, are much more enjoyable and interesting. Club soccer is the starter, soup/salad and main course in one. Country is like dessert. Sometimes it’s a fruit cup from the school cafeteria. Sometimes it’s eating tiramisu in a Milan cafe.
    Club all the way. Though the new generation of USMNT players may just get a Michelin star.

  4. As a competition marked by remarkable matches and unexpected outcomes, it doesn’t get much better than the international game. This might be the product of growing up when the club game was nowhere in the States and my first exposure to the game on television was the 1990 World Cup. Haven’t missed it since. And now, having the Euro televised in its entirety is just fantastic.

    I think the Gold cup would be consistently better if the competition was tougher and amounted to more than a contest between Mexico and the US. (To be candid, I won’t hate it if Jamaica knocks us out of the quarterfinal — perhaps owing in part to my club loyalties and affection for both Blake and Burke.)

    If I were to take All4U’s lead and employ a metaphor, Club football is the weekend with no chores to do and international football is the two-week vacation to a place I’ve been looking forward to visiting for two years.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      The Union will always be the most important soccer team to me, but international games just have that something extra. I think it’s partially because they don’t come around often.

  5. I love your writing!

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