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Ken Gude

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Is This the Breakthrough for Soccer in America?

Posted: 06/23/10 06:01 PM ET

American soccer fans have been waiting for this moment for decades. Support for soccer in the United States has been growing steadily, with millions now playing and watching the game. Broadcasters have noticed and made an unprecedented commitment to cover the sport. The missing ingredient seemed to be something that would capture the attention of the casual sports fan and the broader American public. Nothing does that like outrage and winning. We've had the outrage and Landon Donovan's late winner provided the drama and points the way to a realistic chance at a place in the semifinals. Could this be the breakthrough for soccer in America?

The growth of soccer in American simply cannot be denied. The first generation of kids to play the sport in large numbers in the 70s and 80s are now adults and are in the perfect age demographic that sports broadcasters and advertisers target. The next generations are playing the game in the tens of millions, and soccer is now by far the most played youth sport in America. The Internet and soccer specific cable channels have brought the world's game into the living rooms of the United States. And dozens of Americans now play in those leagues, making their names know in England, France, Germany, and Italy.

Now ESPN, the American sports broadcast monopoly, has dramatically boosted its soccer coverage. The ubiquitous network has the ability to drive sports viewership the way Walter Cronkite used to make the news. Far from just the every four year mega event of the World Cup, ESPN now covers the European Championships and the Confederations Cup in international competition, and shows live English Premier League and Spanish La Liga games on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season to go along with its MLS braodcasts. And it's not just the number of games, it's the increased and improved coverage with studio shows and big name international commentators. ESPN has placed a big bet on soccer in America and it can move the needle on its own.

But even massive structural changes off the field won't catapult soccer into the broader American consciousness without success on it. We may now be on the verge of that moment as everything seems to be coming together at the right time. The World Cup is always a major event, but there is little competition for the attention of sports fans as basketball and hockey are finished, while baseball is still in the earlier stages of its marathon season and football is still months away.

The group stage has played out perfectly, as the US was drawn in a with global power and close cultural and political ally England, producing six months of buildup (and a hilarious Dodge commercial). The US played them in their tournament opener, elevating the significance of its first game and gaining some respect with a hard fought draw. Then the absolutely horrific disallowed goal in the second match against Slovenia sparked widespread outrage and mainstream media (not sports) attention. And the drama of the extra time winner to put the US atop the group and into the next round just might have captured the casual sports fan as reports from offices, bars, and hotel lobbies of large scenes of jubilation at the decisive goal can attest.

It doesn't end there -- and this is why this may really be the breakthrough. The way the knockout stage draw has worked out, the US has a realistic chance of reaching the semifinals of the World Cup. Winning Group C put the US in the quarter of the draw with Uruguay, South Korea, and Ghana. The US is looking for revenge against Ghana in the round of 16 for the 2006 World Cup defeat, which was largely the result of a mystery penalty decision against the US. Should we get past them, we face the winner of Uruguay vs. South Korea in the quarterfinals. All three of those teams are quite capable of beating the US, but that is about as soft a path to the semifinals of the World Cup as the US is ever likely to see. England, who finished second behind the US, will have to beat Germany and then likely Argentina to get to the semis. It's not hard to see who's got a tougher road.

We've had some measure of success on the field before -- a quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 Cup and the dramatic run to the finals of the Confederations Cup in 2009. And beating quality teams like Ghana and probably Uruguay is far from assured. But the other necessary ingredients have come together and all that is left is a deep run in the World Cup when everyone is watching. What for so long has seemed just a dream now is squarely within our grasp.

 

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