Soccer in the United States has reached the tipping point. We have heard similar statements before of course, usually upon the arrival in America of mega stars like Pele or David Beckham. But the strength of the sport in this country now extends far beyond the reach of any one player, no matter how popular. Steady progress on the field--including a major success for the U.S. men's national team this summer--is always helpful. Yet it is the more significant developments happening off the field that are providing the foundation underlying the growth of the game and making 2009 the year we can finally say soccer is here to stay in America.
One of the lesser known and more aggrieved minorities in the United States had long been the American soccer fan. Coverage of the sport on major network and cable outlets used to be non-existent, while the broadcast and print media largely ignored the game outside of the every-fourth-year pilgrimage to the World Cup. When soccer did break through, it was more often the subject of ridicule than analysis--we're all familiar with the narrow-minded complaints about the lack of scoring. Making matters worse, the derision is not reserved to the U.S. media, soccer writers and fans around the world like nothing more than to explain to Americans why they "will never get football."
These fundamentals have been changing for some time now even though mainstream sports media has been slow to recognize the shift. Soccer is now absolutely massive at youth level in the United States, with more than 20 million kids playing in leagues all around the country. They aren't called "soccer moms" for nothing. The youth soccer explosion is relatively new, however, with kids first taking up the sport in large numbers only in the 1970s, largely the result of Pele and his New York Cosmos. This and subsequent generations appreciate and understand the game more because they played it when they were young.
The first soccer playing generations reached adulthood at around the same time as globalization and the Internet dramatically changed our access to media. They had an appetite for coverage, and if the mainstream American sports media wasn't going to give it to them, the Internet and soccer focused cable networks provided ready access to the only genuinely global game. The new wave of American soccer fan was knowledgeable, committed, and now old enough to spend money supporting the game they love. This year, the right people finally noticed.
Perhaps it was the remarkable success of the new Major League Soccer franchise in Seattle, which blew away the league attendance record. Or maybe it was the summer exhibition series that brought global powers to the U.S. to play before tens of thousands of Americans decked out in hometown kit and Real Madrid or Chelsea gear. Whatever the reason, ESPN has significantly ramped up its coverage and promotion of the game.
ESPN's SportsCenter is to sports in America what Walter Cronkite was to the evening news: it defines and drives coverage, reporting, and viewership. And SportsCenter is pushing soccer, hoping to drive coverage of ESPN's new soccer lineup: the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, and yes, MLS and the U.S. national team. Mainstream sports figures are now embracing soccer. Bill Simmons, who was formerly ambivalent at best, described the U.S. vs. Mexico World Cup qualifier in Azteca Stadium this August, as "one of those 'I'm going to remember everything that happened 40 years from now'" moments.
This transformation has real impact on the quality of the play on the field. The generations of Americans that played soccer as kids are also improving the American national team. Its just 20 years ago that the United States beat tiny Trinidad and Tobago with a late goal to secure our first World Cup Finals berth in 40 years. The current American men's national team just qualified for our sixth straight Finals, joining only Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and South Korea (no England or France!) as countries that have been to at least that many in a row. They deservedly beat the Spanish, reigning European champions, this summer in the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup, and nearly held on to a two goal lead in the final before succumbing to Brazil.
But it's the kids who are just growing up with the game now that have American fans the most excited. All those kids who have played soccer in America the last 30 years also played other sports. If they were exceptionally gifted and aspired to a professional career, it was rare that they would think soccer was an option. Not anymore, a kid from suburban Maryland signed this summer for global superpower AC Milan.
The late, great, Steven Wells, wrote in the Guardian that soccer is the Barack Obama of sports, arguing that the social changes that propelled Obama to the presidency "are embodied in the growth of soccer in the U.S." Now that's change American soccer fans can believe in.
Ken Gude writes for the soccer blog Association Football, and is an associate director at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.