Who said that soccer couldn't be exciting? Things looked bleak, but Abby Wambach's last second goal against Brazil saved the day and helped to send the United States into the semifinals of the World Cup. Unfortunately, the Americans couldn't finish the deal, losing to Japan in the Championship Game in a nailbiting shootout after a 2-2 tie.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, the gutsy performance of the U.S. Women's team in this year's World Cup should give American soccer a boost, not just in this tournament, but as a spectator sport in the U.S.
Unfortunately, soccer is still a minor sport to many Americans, who think that watching a 0-0 soccer game is as exciting as watching QVC or C-SPAN. However, the perception of soccer in the United States is slowly, but surely, growing in popularity.
While the future of American soccer was unlikely to be determined by the American team's 2011 World Cup performance, the impressive showing by the U.S. team should lead to even more passion about soccer as a spectator sport, both for the men's and women's pro soccer leagues in the U.S..
The Women's Professional Soccer League, currently in its third season, is trying to develop a fan base. Last year, the league averaged 3,600 fans per game, which was down from 4,600 per game in 2009, according to CFO Magazine.
Major League Soccer, the men's league, is on a much stronger footing and it continues to grow.
According to SoccerAmerica.com, Major League Soccer's average attendance is up nearly 1,500 from last season at over 17,500 fans per game. The Portland Timbers have sold out their stadium for 10 straight games. MLS average attendance is comparable to that of the NBA and NHL. Games against international competition draw big crowds, as 25 Gold Cup games averaged over 45,000 this year, and 93,000 people attended the U.S-Mexico Gold Cup final last month at the Rose Bowl. Over 50,000 fans attended the game between Manchester United and the New England Revolution in Massachusetts last week.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson told ESPN.com how much growth he had seen in U.S. soccer in the last eight years. "Now we see the United States in a different light. There is evidence now that they are starting to produce their own players. They have advanced their game because of the coaching and their sports science. Their preparation is first class. That has put them to a different level in terms of my appreciation of them and also my understanding that you are not going to get an easy game.'' He also told The Sun of the U.K. that Major League Soccer could one day compete with top leagues like the English Premier League.
Soccer tends to reach its fever peak when U.S. teams compete in the World Cup. Television ratings rose significantly during the men's U.S. World Cup runs in 1994, 2002, and 2010. The U.S. Women's World Cup title game in 1999 had the nation captivated. This year's women's team has done the same, as men, women, boys, and girls were flocking again to watch the games on TV.
Every time a U.S. national soccer team, either men's or women's, does well in a World Cup, it gives the sport more exposure and draws in new fans.
While there are many anti-soccer people rooting against American soccer success, I'm not among them. Unlike most American adults, I actually played soccer as a kid in the late 1970s before it was cool. I played varsity soccer for my high school, religiously watched Soccer Made in Germany on PBS, frequently went to pro soccer games at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, and caught World Cup fever when I went to three games in Boston in 1994. I've never seen a more electric atmosphere in the stands throughout an entire game. Fans from various countries with painted faces were constantly waving flags, beating drums, and chanting the now familiar cheer, "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole."
Soccer fans may not be a silent majority, but there are more of us out here than you realize. Many kids who grew up playing soccer during the last twenty years appreciate the sport and have grown up to be MLS fans. Soccer haters might want to give our sport the boot, but the great showing by Abby Wambach and Team U.S.A. in the World Cup keeps heading the sport in the right direction