Sunday, June 28, 2009

What's the Future of Soccer in America?

Once the NBA and NHL season's end, sports tends to slow down with a bunch of tedious regular season baseball games being the bulk of sports; thus we as American sports fans look for something to take our attention. Obviously, the Olympics are the best example of a distraction for three weeks, but that only every leap year. We want the last three golf majors and Wimbledon to be that, but it only occurs if Tiger is on the leaderboard in golf, and if the Williams sisters, Federer/Nadal or an American player in general go to the final. It gets pretty desperate that the Little League World Series is regularly treated as an important event.

Well, for the past week, soccer proved to be the latest distraction. The United States went on a run that has been unparalleled in the history of men's soccer. They reached the final of a FIFA event for the first time ever, beating powerhouse Spain along the way and giving Brazil a run for their money before bowing out 3-2 after a Brazilian comeback. The end result of this defeat can go one of two ways, either we are encouraged by the fact we can hang with the best in the world and start to follow the sport greater than ever. Or we are disillusioned because the team choked away victory.

The best way to look at the future of soccer is to gauge the past to see where there were opportunities for the sport to make it's splash here. Despite appearances in three of the first four World Cups (including a memorable upset of England in 1950), soccer didn't make any headway on the American sports scene until 1975 when Pele starred with the New York Cosmos in the NASL. His influence would prolong the league another nine years, but couldn't keep it from eventually folding. However, the framework was there for a grassroots effort to bring the U.S. team back to respectability and back to the World Cup.

1990 would be the year the U.S. would return to the World Cup and lost all three games. However, they were chosen to host to the 1994 World Cup and that would set up the second opportunity for soccer to grow in the States. I should know, it was the first time in my life I was into soccer, and USA-Colombia served as an appetizer to Knicks-Rockets Game 7. That was the first USA victory since 1950 and we realized how serious people take this sport when Andres Escobar, the man responsible for the deciding own goal in the U.S. 2-1 victory over Colombia was killed ten days later. The U.S. advanced to the knockout stage and a meeting on July 4th against Brazil, losing to the eventual champs 1-0 after a goal in the 72nd minute. The success of the World Cup led to the creation of the MLS, which is still in business, even though it is a minor league when compared to European club teams. 1998 was a forgetful year as the USA finished 32nd or 32 teams in France, but 2002 would see the greatest success in the modern era of U.S. soccer. They would beat Portugal and tie South Korea to advance to another knockout stage, then beat Mexico 2-0 to advance to the quarters, before losing to Germany 1-0.

At this point, it seemed like soccer only would become important every four years for the men. Women's soccer, however seemed to also grab some attention during the late 90s when the U.S. Women's Team won the 1999 Women's World Cup. Of course, most of that attention was due to Brandi Chastain's celebration after the game-winning goal including her taking off her shirt, revealing only a sports bar. Unfortunately, women's soccer peaked at that time as they could get a professional league off the ground and has been marginalized as of late.

Soccer, it seems has started more of a push since the 2006 World Cup, despite the U.S. not faring well. Part of the reason is because that was the first time I spent the bulk of the World Cup working in Manhattan, and saw more games on TV's in bars and restaurants. Still, it was being watched and not only the USA matches, but matches involving Brazil, Spain, France, etc. The Italy-France final was a great match and based on the Italian-American population in New York, it was treated as it should be and certainly is in the rest of the world. I believe that since the 2006 World Cup, there is much more soccer that's watched here than ever before. Whether it's the annual Champions League tournament, Euro 2008 or this years Confederations Cup.

The ratings for the match was a 2.7, around the same as some USA World Cup matches and that doesn't include those who watched it on Univision (both for Spanish-speaking individuals and for those like me who wait for the announce to say GOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL). However, this was due to a belief we had a chance after beating Spain and that Brazil was the opponent. Without the USA in the final, the game stays on ESPN2 and maybe gets 1/3 of the audience. The fact about soccer is that it is the fifth team sport in this country and now that the NHL is starting to regain the lost attention that occured from 1995-2005, it seems like fifth is where soccer will stay. However, as long as baseball is the only sport from June-August, there is a place for soccer to grow, since most of the high profile tournaments happen in those months. Plus, tennis isn't what it used to be, NASCAR is starting to decline and the WNBA is lucky to still be in business. Now if only Tiger Woods left golf, soccer would be fifth overall.

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