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"In any language, the whole world is united by a ball." --- Steve Amoia, World Football Commentaries

Monday, July 12, 2010

Will Soccer Become a Major Sport in the USA?

A guest post by Chris Behrens for World Football Commentaries

42085, NEW YORK, NEW YORK - Tuesday June 29, 2010. David Letterman performs a variety of stunts with guest and by himself outside of the Ed Sullivan Theater. First, Dave rode a bicycle powered by Coca Cola fountains followed by trying to kick a soccer ball into a moving cab with USA soccer star Landon Donovan. Dolly Parton was also on the show but quickly walked to her waiting SUV after her appearance. Photograph:  Darla Khazei, PacificCoastNews.com
Landon Donovan with David Letterman.
Soccer is taken seriously now by
mainstream American
media after decades of derision, fear and ignorance.

If this World Cup in South Africa has taught us anything, it’s that the US can be captivated by soccer every four years for as long as the team continues to progress in the tournament. But the question on any soccer enthusiasts mind remains, will it reach the tipping point and become a major sport in this country? There are several ways to answer this question:

1: Soccer Already is a Major Sport

By all accounts, soccer is the most played youth sport in the country, with over 3 million registered US youth soccer participants (which doesn’t even take into account recreational leagues or unregistered participants around the country). By comparison, American football and American hockey have fewer than 1 million registered youth participants. More than a 3 to 1 ratio of participants is an indicative statistic in itself.

But let’s look at the professional standards as well. Although MLS has yet to crack into the top four leagues in the US (NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB), it is the one of the fastest growing leagues in the world. At just 14 years old, MLS has 16 teams and counting, with two more franchises set to join next season (Portland and Vancouver) as well as another team to join in 2012 (Montreal). In addition to adding new franchises (a promising outlook), teams are starting to become profitable, with the Los Angeles Galaxy, FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, and the Colorado Rapids all enjoying at least one year of profit in their time in the league.

By comparison, it’s nearly impossible to be a profitable business in a European soccer league unless your name is Arsène Wenger of Arsenal FC. The biggest clubs (Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona) bleed money due to outrageous transfer fees and hapless spending. A real positive to take out of the MLS is signs of profitability. A salary cap has restricted teams in a good way, preventing teams paying players outrageous wages. The designated player rule also helps bring in stars, which this country loves.

2: Soccer Will Never Be A Major Sport

BALTIMORE - JULY 24: Oguchi Onyewu #14 of AC Milan passes the ball against Chelsea FC at M & T Bank Stadium on July 24, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

Washington D.C. native and US star, Oguchi Onyewu,
now plays for an elite
European team, AC Milan.

Most US parents view soccer as a harmless but beneficial activity that kids can participate in with their friends. This mindset comes from the fact that there are no huge sponsorships or contracts to chase in the world of US soccer, unless your child has the rare talent to go abroad and play. The thing to aspire to in US soccer: a college scholarship. No soccer-centric country has this mentality.

Juergen Klinsmann Echoed This Theme on ESPN
"You are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down. That means you pay for having your kid play soccer. Because your goal is not that your kid becomes a professional soccer player because your goal is that your kid gets a scholarship in high school or college. Which is completely opposite from the rest of the world."

--- Juergen Klinsmann on June 27, 2010 from ESPN studios in Johannesburg.

Mr. Klinsmann won the 1990 World Cup with Germany and coached his native land to a third-place finish in 2006.

In England, players are mocked if they truly feel soccer is a career path. Youth academies dominate European’s major soccer countries and the mentality abroad is that education will get in the way of professional athletics. While this can be said about some sports in our own country (basketball or baseball most notably), US soccer is quite far away from ever viewing this as a positive. Until professional franchises form youth academies that start at an early age and recruit those players not seeking a college scholarship, soccer will never advance very far in the US.
There are a very small pool of kids who actually earn a college scholarship from their time playing soccer, but a huge amount of realistic youth players who either can’t afford to play in organized soccer or know the outlook of an American soccer player is bleak.
The country is “neglecting” the youth of America who don’t aspire to an education and only desire a professional athletics career. Currently, kids cannot get this from soccer without pouring money into local club teams and progressing into a standout player. A standard must be set by professional franchises and local clubs to bring in kids from “the streets” to sponsor and nurture these into athletes. Unfortunately, none of the youth academies will matter unless the US can produce the highest quality soccer players. The American mentality doesn’t settle for anything less than the biggest and best in athletics (think baseball or basketball).

3: Soccer Can Become A Major Sport

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02218061 USA's Landon Donovan (L) celebrates with his team mates Edson Buddle (2nd L), Clint Dempsey (C) and Benny Feilhaber (2nd R) after scoring the game-winning extra-time goal during the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between the USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010. At right Algeria's Anther Yahia and Nadir Belhadj (3rd R). The USA defeated Algeria 1-0 and advances to the round of 16.
Fans streamed into bars and restaurants to watch
the World Cup in unprecedented fashion in North America.
ESPN provided media credibility with their significant
coverage and Univision led the way with Spanish
language broadcasts. Records were set for domestic
television viewership.

Many people argue that soccer has loads of potential in the USA. We have one of the largest youth talent pools to serve from on the globe, solely based upon overall population. Based on the numbers, the US should produce talented players from the limited number of players that turn to soccer as a profession. However, much of the success and popularity of professional soccer can best be associated with the US Men’s Senior National Team. Surely, everyone can argue that we missed a big chance this year by losing in the Round of 16 to Ghana. We did. Expectations from most US soccer fans were to get out of our group. We not only did that, but we won the group.

To the casual fan, however, expectations for this team were at an all-time high, with a team largely based of European-based players and a match-up as appealing (USA v. England) as an any in the group stages of the World Cup. Americans expect their athletes to be winners and nothing less. The goal for US Soccer should be to reach the quarterfinals or further of each ensuing World Cup.

A major problem for US Soccer is the CONCACAF region. We are quite limited to playing relatively weak competition (with Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica providing our only true competition) because of geographic constraints. We cannot really change this; however, we can help our cause. Additional friendlies could be organized at all levels of US soccer to expose our players to the highest level of competition across the globe. The USA v. Brazil friendly on August 10th is a great start.

In addition to the national team organizing friendlies, major European clubs need to continue touring the US during their preseason tours. Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona touring is terrific for this country, as they contain the biggest soccer stars on the planet. Finally, the MLS needs to home-grow their own talent instead of using itself as a retirement ground for aging European stars or a temporary stop for budding US stars. The MLS can become a viable league and has already improved leaps and bounds since its inception. Retaining and attracting top talent needs to be priority number one. In order for this to happen, the salary cap needs to be removed from the league. This is a great risk, but has a great payoff.

About the Author

Chris Behrens works for SoccerPro.com. Check them out for the best deals on youth soccer gear. While your there be sure to check out their soccer camp directory.

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