As the sun sets on the 00s, it is worth an initial look back on the decade that was and some thoughts on the decade that will be. While politically, economically, and socially this will be seen as one of the worst decades in memory, when it comes to soccer, this is the decade that American soccer finally arrived.
1. USMNT became a respected, even feared, international team. As the decade began playing the United States was seen internationally, as playing Trinidad or New Zealand. We were seen as a push over, a minnow of the soccer world. This lack of respect was vividly demonstrated in the BBC's 30 min lead in program to the USA-Portugal 2002 world cup game, where Gary Linnekar and Alan Hansen never even talked about the US team. Now, following the confederations cup and more and more Americans playing abroad, there is a genuine respect for the US side coming from the vast majority of English commentators. We are no longer seen as a push over. Moreover, during this decade the US-Mexico rivalry reached another level, with the US overtaking Mexico as the Kings of CONCACAF, evidenced by winning in the 02 round of 16 in the World Cup, the 2 World Cup qualifications of the decade and the 07 Gold Cup, which sent the US to the Confederations Cup. This rivalry is shaping up as one of the best international soccer rivalries in the world. We are not world beaters yet, but we are among the stronger of the second tier of soccer nations.
What does the next decade hold? The progress over this past decade has been remarkable and that should continue. However, I think few will expect the US to win a World Cup this decade, but as 2020 draws to a close we will begin to creep into the conversation. There will be some setbacks. And I think one of the three tournaments will be seen as really disappointing, but overall the national team like the game overall will continue its rise.
2. US players have broken through abroad, especially in the Premier league. More and more players are plying their trade abroad, some even playing with big European clubs. Brian McBride's breakthrough with Everton and then with Fulham was perhaps the most significant, as his play and demeanor gave American MLS players a great name and laid the groundwork for more to follow. True US players before him plied their trade in top European leagues, but McBride's emergence went hand in hand with the growth of the national team and MLS. The existence of FulhAmerica with a Premier league team including McBride, Dempsey, Bocanegra, Eddie Johnson, and Kasey Keller was in itself shocking that a team in the top league in the world would have so many US players. Additionally, Oguchi Onyewu's signing at AC Milan, Jozy Alitdore's record transfer to Villareal, and even Landon Donovan's loan signings with Bayern Munich and Everton saw Americans joining elite clubs.
What does the next decade hold? Expect over the decade for more Americans to breakthrough in Spain and Italy and for a few more to play in some top sides. Also expect one of those to be considered among the world's elite players.
3. MLS Solidified. The league started the decade with much uncertainty and with considerable questions concerning its viability in the American sports landscape. The contraction of two Florida teams seemed a bad omen for the league's prospects. Last year's recession could have been fatal for the league a decade ago, but as the decade closed MLS had arguably its most successful year and is poised to expand to three new cities (Philly 2010, Portland and Vancouver in 2011) that will all hit the ground running, adding additional rivalries and making the league even more competitive.
Don Garber, who became commissioner in 1999, has been synonymous with the league's development and deserves tremendous credit. Garber emphasized a focus on making the league feel more authentic and abandoned some of the gimmicks used to entertain suburban moms and families, which served turn off more hardcore soccer fans. The emphasis on soccer specific stadiums has been a huge boon to the league financially, created a sense of permanence and improved the atmosphere. Next year 11 of the 16 teams will play in stadiums designed for soccer, including the league's new crown jewel in New York. The emphasis on authenticity has given rise to some loyal fan bases, laying the groundwork for a burgeoning American soccer fan culture. The signing of David Beckham, despite ups and downs, has been a resounding commercial success and has put MLS on the global map and MLS players have attracted more attention from European clubs.
What does the next decade hold? Over the next decade I would expect the league to gradually, but steadily gain a foothold in the American sportscape to the point that by the end of the decade the MLS cup will be a lead story on sportscenter - on par with the treatment of the Stanley Cup - and some mainstream sports journos will begin spilling some ink on the league, actually writing about things having to do with the play on the field. I also think the quality of play will gradually improve as teams invest in youth development and US talent in general expands and improves. Additionally, the league will lure some solid European players that are in the middle of their careers not the end. Expansion will also continue, giving the league a team in Montreal and a presence in the south. By 2020 the league will have more than 20 teams and will be taken seriously at home and abroad. Transfer fees for MLS players will also rise continuously throughout the decade.
4. Culturally in the US the game has made great strides. While coverage of soccer was scant in 2000, as the decade turns, soccer has found a home online and the development of soccer specific tv channels that show games from Europe's top leagues. Someone wanting to dig deeper in the game has numerous places to turn.
In terms of impacting America's sportscape, the game has passed a significant hurdle. As the decade dawned ESPN and traditional mainstream sportswriters - Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, and Bill Simmons etc. - all paid the game no mind or outright mocked it. Despite showing the World Cup, ESPN's coverage in 02 and 06 left much to be desired. The ombudsman for ESPN in 06 even whined that complaints from American soccer fans of the coverage should be dismissed because we were impossible to please. Now, ESPN has bought the rights to Premier League games, it signed Martin Tyler to announce the World Cup and has significantly upgraded and professionalized its coverage of soccer. While soccer is still lampooned among some "mainstream" journalists, the Frank Defords and Jim Romes are becoming more and more on the fringe. Bill Simmons emergence as a soccer fan is symbolic of the game's rise in general this decade. And while the Wilbon and Kornheiser are not soccer fans, they do actually talk about the game from time to time and no longer hate on it as they used to.
What to expect over the next decade? As American cities continue to revive, soccer will be increasingly seen as an "urban" game, associated with the growing class of urban young professionals. As traditional mainstream journos are gradually replaced with new younger journalists will not fear or shirk away from the game the way their predecessors did. More will cover it and write about it and the games cultural foothold will expand.