The League

Steve Goff
Staff Writer

Steve Goff

Washington Post sports reporter and author of Soccer Insider

On the Right Path

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Soccer has a place in the American sports landscape. It's not the same place as the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, but with a growing pro league, competitive national teams and a changing U.S. demographic fueled by Latin American immigration, soccer has found a comfortable foothold.

There's no arguing soccer's popularity around the world - I could strike up a conversation about Manchester United or Brazil's World Cup team in almost every town of every corner of the planet and find a match on satellite TV at any moment of the day year-round.

Clearly, the level or intensity of interest in the United States does not match most of the world's because soccer does not have the deep historical roots here as it does in places such as Glasgow, where Catholics support Celtic and Protestants back Rangers. Such as Buenos Aires, where River Plate is the team of the upper crust and Boca Juniors represents the working class. Such as Barcelona, where the European club champions are a symbol of Catalan culture, or London, where England's 1966 World Cup championship at Wembley was the country's grandest sporting accomplishment.

Nonetheless, soccer has taken significant steps in America the past 20 years: the rise of the women's program into a global titan, MLS's 14 seasons with average attendance in the 15,000 range, the opening of several mid-sized stadiums designed for soccer, and the men's national team approaching a sixth consecutive appearance in the World Cup after a 40-year absence. Enormous crowds fill NFL stadiums to see visiting European clubs every summer and the Mexican and Salvadoran national squads have found second homes in American venues.

Did the U.S. team's 2-0 upset of Spain, which hadn't lost in 2 ½ years, change things dramatically? No, of course not. The victory came in the Confederations Cup, an eight-team tune-up for next summer's World Cup. But it did catch the attention of casual American sports fans, whose soccer memories consist of Pele with the New York Cosmos, Brandi Chastain's shirt-removing celebration at the Rose Bowl in 1999 and the men's team advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals three years later.

A repeat Sunday against Brazil in Johannesburg would provide another boost, but the key for the national team -- and the sport, for that matter -- is sustainability. Will the progress and success continue into the World Cup next year when it really matters? Can MLS compete for expensive talent and bolster its product? Will American soccer's player development system yield world-class prospects?

Soccer has made nice strides in this country; the question is whether it can fulfill its massive potential, on and off the field.

By Steve Goff  |  June 26, 2009; 12:15 PM ET  | Category:  NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Well in, Steve.

Posted by: JkR- | June 26, 2009 4:04 PM

As British (English) I suggest you take up Rugby Union rather than Soccer. It's a pity that American Football is not seen on UK TV (the BBC because i will not put any more money in Murdock's pocket than necessary). Soccer in the UK is about money and which team has the most to buy the players. It's a business not a sport.
Well that's my six penny worth.
Richard

Posted by: richardalley | June 27, 2009 7:23 AM

As British (English) I suggest you take up Rugby Union rather than Soccer. It's a pity that American Football is not seen on UK TV (the BBC because i will not put any more money in Murdock's pocket than necessary). Soccer in the UK is about money and which team has the most to buy the players. It's a business not a sport.
Well that's my six penny worth.
Richard

Posted by: richardalley | June 27, 2009 7:24 AM

I think the most important factor is youth soccer. Millions of kids are playing soccer today in youth leagues all across America. Soccer will become a major league sport here when those kids grow up and view soccer as just as big a sport as football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Then, and not before, we will see the TV ratings that will put soccer on the map.

Posted by: Garak | June 27, 2009 8:26 AM

Goff as usual has the well-reasoned, coherent argument, as opposed to American football fans who spew the same old tired arguments: soccer is low scoring, its boring -- more boring than a three-hour football game that has 40 minutes of actual action! Please!

My kids both play soccer at a very high level and many of their friends, even those who don't play, passionately follow the big European leagues, and the transfer rumors.

As the previous poster said, the key thing is the number of youth, boys and girls, who are playing -- exponentially more than the number of boys who play football. With all that talent the game will inevitably grow here. Just look at the number of Americans playing abroad!

Whether futbol/soccer surpasses American football is irrelevant. More important is how consistently we can compete on the international stage.

Posted by: hyds | June 27, 2009 9:41 AM

Goff as usual has the well-reasoned, coherent argument, as opposed to American football fans who spew the same old tired arguments: soccer is low scoring, its boring -- more boring than a three-hour football game that has 40 minutes of actual action! Please!

My kids both play soccer at a very high level and many of their friends, even those who don't play, passionately follow the big European leagues, and the transfer rumors.

As the previous poster said, the key thing is the number of youth, boys and girls, who are playing -- exponentially more than the number of boys who play football. With all that talent the game will inevitably grow here. Just look at the number of Americans playing abroad!

Whether futbol/soccer surpasses American football is irrelevant. More important is how consistently we can compete on the international stage.

Posted by: hyds | June 27, 2009 9:42 AM

Why is this even being discussed? This series of columns is juvenile at best. Soccer has been a major sport in the USA since at least the 1970s. Why is it that anytime the US Nats or World Cup comes around that we need to have a discussion on whether or not soccer will last or become big? It's almost like the non-soccer fans are threatened by something. It's here to stay. Move on.

Posted by: ddd001 | June 27, 2009 10:00 AM

Spot on

Posted by: Jeffreymsoltz | June 27, 2009 10:03 AM

After losing two games the U.S. needed Brazil to beat Italy 3-0 and themselves beat a better Egyptian team 3-0 to even get the chance to upset Spain who had a very bad day.

The coach should have been in Vegas instead of South Africa beating those odds.

When the U.S. face Brazil they will go against stronger, faster, and more skillful opponents. They will be totally and completely outclassed at every position.

"Will the progress and success continue into the World Cup next year when it really matters?"

No. I odds of the U.S. enjoying similar success next summer are slim to null.

"Can MLS compete for expensive talent and bolster its product?"

Not in our lifetimes will the MLS compete with European top teams for the best young players. They may aspire to be a conduit for very young talent and/or a retirement destination for the old and aging player.

"Will American soccer's player development system yield world-class prospects?"

Not until some of our best athletes move from traditional sports to soccer. If young black kids emulate African youth love of the game. Not until we see pick up games and kids playing in the streets of our inner city and suburbs will America develop world class players.

We probably need one great player to come along -- a kaka, messi, or ronaldo. But in order for someone to develop that type of talent they need quickly get exposed to the highest level of competition...meaning they need sign with a European academy at a young age...the pace, skill level, competition here just isn't good enough...by the late teens its too late.

Posted by: ram_xxx_ram | June 27, 2009 12:50 PM

Soccer's done a great job at getting kids, especially girls, to participate; less well at developing fan base--Large chunks of audience at the pro games I've seen in NY and DC are Latin, not many Anglos except the kids who play at half time
Ram_XX_Ram's right--More Americans are getting good enough to play in Europe,but are playing in college, where competition is still pretty weak, rather than in European academies

Posted by: grundoon51 | June 27, 2009 2:53 PM

Soccer's done a great job at getting kids, especially girls, to participate; less well at developing fan base--Large chunks of audience at the pro games I've seen in NY and DC are Latin, not many Anglos except the kids who play at half time
Ram_XX_Ram's right--More Americans are getting good enough to play in Europe,but are playing in college, where competition is still pretty weak, rather than in European academies

Posted by: grundoon51 | June 27, 2009 2:53 PM

Soccer's done a great job at getting kids, especially girls, to participate; less well at developing fan base--Large chunks of audience at the pro games I've seen in NY and DC are Latin, not many Anglos except the kids who play at half time

This is nonsense. I don't think you've ever been to a DC United game. I've been to hundreds and the crowd is probably 80% "Anglos". Stop trying to pitch soccer as a sport for foreigners so you feel better about baseball and football.

Posted by: restonhoops | July 1, 2009 1:53 PM

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