Remember when the New York Cosmos signed Pele and it was going to kick start America's love affair with the domination of soccer? Me neither, but I'm told it was pretty cool.
To be fair you would have to be over 50 to remember Pele's stint in New York but it did give soccer a big boost in relevance in the U.S. and there was a belief at the time that both the United States and Canada were finally going to catch on to the world's most popular game. His impact on the sport in the U.S. never quite drove the sport to the same level as the big 3 (or even 4), but Pele finally earned back some money after coming out of his legendary Brazilian soccer career flat broke. Ever since then it seems like both the United States and Canada are always on the verge of becoming soccer-loving countries with national programs that reflect the change in the game's relevance, but they just never quite get there.
Not to cry wolf yet again but all the positive signs are there for this long-awaited soccer revolution to be occurring now. Major League Soccer attendance has skyrocketed and last year set attendance records in both attendance per game and total gate. Five-and-a-half million soccer fans broke the turnstiles of Major League Soccer last year, a jump from the previous record of four million set in 2010. More Americans are enrolling in soccer programs than ever before, and that large player pool has to result in an improvement to the national program at some point.
But for the United States to really break through and become a soccer-loving nation they will need success from their national program, and that means joining the ranks of FIFA's top tier programs.
With Jürgen Klinsmann at the helm the evidence of the U.S.'s progression has been very inconsistent. Defeating Italy and a blowout victory of Scotland seemed to point to a U.S. soccer program on the rise. A 4-1 loss to Brazil seemed to bring the yanks back to reality, but a loss to Brazil can never be considered too much of a defeat.
But then there was Sunday: a 0-0 draw to Canada in Toronto... a draw to Canada? That can't be viewed as anything, but a major set-back right?
It wasn't so much the result as the match itself, as you could argue that Canada actually deserved the victory. Late in the game MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario danced his way into the box and fed the ball to Norwich City striker Simeon Jackson who missed a perfect opportunity to give Canada the upset victory.
You could chalk this game up to a poor performance by the U.S. but perhaps a different scenario is just as plausible: Canada is actually pretty good, and on the verge of a big jump up the FIFA rankings as well.
"They showed it out there today, they are right there."
Was Klinsmann's response to a question about how competitive Canada will be in the CONCACAF qualifiers at the post-game press conference. Klinsmann then went on to suggest that it would be great if both countries are able to qualify for Brazil in 2014; the fact that this is a very plausible scenario is likely to have Canadian soccer fans on the edge of their seat for the next two summers of qualifiers.
The American draw to Canada doesn't erase their victory over Italy, or their dominant defeat of Scotland. The performance against Canada is not evidence that the American program still isn't on the verge of being a top-tier program, but it is evidence of a rise in Canadian soccer that is occurring as well.
More Canadians are enrolled in organized soccer than any other sport in the country. Let's just take a little pause and wait for that statistic to sit in with Canadian readers. Yes, I am including hockey into that calculation: More Canadians are enrolled in organized soccer than any other sport including hockey! But until recently, this seemingly large player pool has never translated to a large harvesting of elite Canadian soccer players. The reason for this is something that I am now dubbing "The Allan Rourke Syndrome":
Allan Rourke Syndrome (Al-an Roar-ke Sin-Drohm)
1. When an elite Canadian athlete chooses to focus on hockey instead of other sports because, well, they're Canadian and that's just what you're supposed to do.
Allan Rourke was a guy I played hockey with and went to school with for a couple of years just outside of Toronto. Allan was the kind of athlete who was good at whatever sport he tried. In gym class, if we were playing dodgeball, Allan was the best in the class at dodgeball; if we were running track, Allan ran faster than the rest of us; if we were doing the high jump, Allan would jump over bars that the rest of us had to strain our necks just to be able to see. Even worse however, is that he had the audacity to be a nice and modest guy about it too, denying the rest of us the opportunity to hate him for being better than us at sports. Jerk.
Allan went on to play at the highest level of youth hockey, then onto the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, got drafted by the Leafs and bounced around between the AHL and stints with the Oilers and Hurricanes before signing a contract with a German team two years ago.
What makes Allan's story indicative of many other elite Canadian athletes is that he could have gone into any sport he wanted to and achieved success. Allan also played on the highest level of youth soccer in our area, but before Allan was legally allowed to drive, he had scouts from the Ontario Junior Hockey league telling him his future was in hockey, and not surprisingly, like all other young Canadian athletes in the same position, he chose to focus on making the NHL and abandoned other sports.
We'll never know what Allan could have accomplished in soccer, just like we will never know how many elite Canadian soccer players or stars in other sports have abandoned other-sport aspirations after junior hockey league scouts fill them with promises of NHL stardom.
The situation in Canada is starting to change however, and young Canadian athletes are going into sports other than hockey more often.
What if at the same time Allan had people in his ear telling him he should focus on hockey he also had TFC, Whitecaps, or Montreal Impact Academy scouts reminding Allan, and all elite Canadian athletes that hockey is not their only option? When Allan was developing his skills the local professional soccer teams were playing to miniscule crowds that consisted of friends and close family members. But what if when Allan was a teenager the women's Olympic qualifiers in Vancouver were drawing close to 23,000 fans, or that TFC and Montreal Impact games being held in Olympic stadium and Rogers center were drawing 40,000 or 50,000 fans like what is currently happening? Soccer is relevant in Canada now, young athletes are going to MLS games, watching Europe's top leagues on cable packages that weren't available five or 10 years ago and the appreciation for the game in Canada is at an all-time high. Young Canadian athletes who five or 10 years ago would have only dreamed of lifting the Stanley Cup now have other dreams as well, like the dream of playing in Europe's top leagues or helping Canada qualify for the World Cup.
With a youth scouting program given a jolt by the addition of the MLS club academies, and a growing appreciation for the sport helping to reduce the rate of "Allan Rourke Syndrome" among young Canadian athletes, the amount of elite soccer players that Canada is due to develop in the coming years has increased dramatically.
The Toronto FC Academy has already produced the most highly touted up and comer in Canada, Ashtone Morgan, who was awarded the Canadian U-20 player of the year award for 2011 and there is plenty of reason to believe that Morgan is just the beginning of an influx of homegrown Canadian soccer talent.
Despite Sunday's result, U.S. soccer could still very well be on the verge of cracking FIFA's top tier. Sunday's match in Toronto wasn't a showcase of an American soccer regression; it was a showcase of two programs about to make leaps in FIFA's rankings.
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