At no time in American history has soccer been more popular in the United States. And, with the 2014 World Cup only nine months away, that interest will only continue to grow.
There is the anecdotal evidence—seeing people on the streets wearing jerseys, hats or jackets of their favorite teams, having conversations at work with colleagues who are not “soccer people” about the latest EPL, MLS or USMNT games, or the texts you receive during big games from friends who are not normally fans that tell you they are watching the same game that you are.
And then, there is the “hard” evidence, like the fact that the Twitter tag for the Champions League #UCL is trending as I write this.
However, as crowd sizes and television ratings continue to rise, the great watershed moments for American soccer continue to be from the World Cup.
In 1990, the United States men’s national team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Very few Americans noticed, but that event began the movement to make soccer a major sport in America.
In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup and the casual American sports fan, as well as millions of Americans who had played or were playing the game as kids, were introduced to the world’s stars and the first generation of American stars. As a 17-year-old that summer who had played the game his entire life, I saw my first game on television. Prior to the 1994 World Cup, Americans lived in the darkness.
Americans got to see the brilliance of players like Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Baggio, Bebeto and Dennis Bergkamp that summer. And American players Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas, Earnie Stewart, Tab Ramos and Eric Wynalda became heroes to a new generation of American fans and players alike.
Following the tournament, Major League Soccer launched in 1996, but it struggled in its early years and the USMNT’s abysmal performance in the 1998 World Cup didn’t help matters.
Youth numbers continued to grow, but America remained largely a soccer wasteland between major tournaments. It was rarely featured on TV and in an era before the internet had exploded, fans remained disconnected and uninformed.
Surprisingly, the next major blow in the growth of the American game was not struck by the USMNT or MLS, but by the United States women’s national team in the 1999 World Cup, hosted in the United States. As Americans watched the tournament unfold, the names Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Briana Scurry and Kristine Lilly became etched in their minds forever. The women went on to win the tournament in an iconic shootout in front of a packed house of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. From home, 40 million fans watched on television—a record for any game, men’s or women’s, in American television history.
Still, the growth of the game struggled. The seeds had been planted through the U.S.’ performances in the World Cup—there was an interest—but the sport failed to penetrate the national zeitgeist. Other than the World Cup, or an occasional MLS game, seeing the game on television was all but impossible and fans remained isolated in pockets around the country.
Ironically, 2002 turned out to be both the darkest year of America soccer and the beginning of the surge which would put it among the major sports in America. That January, MLS announced that it was contracting two teams. To critics, this was an indication that professional soccer in America would fail yet again.
However, that summer, the USMNT made an improbable run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and launched a new era of American soccer stars in Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride, John O’Brien, Clint Mathis and Brad Friedel. Many of the team’s stars played here at home and the majority of those abroad played in England, the easiest league to watch on television (though still very difficult to find).
The years between the 2002 and 2006 World Cup proved to be crucial to the growth of the game in the U.S. MLS attendance continued to grow, the first soccer-specific stadiums in America began to be developed and the league expanded for the first time since contraction. Entering the 2006 World Cup, soccer was ready to explode. Americans were more tuned in than ever and though the USMNT played poorly, it was obvious the sport had arrived.
I watched the U.S. and Italy play to a 1-1 draw that World Cup in a packed Las Vegas sportsbook that rose and fell with every exciting moment in the game. By comparison, I watched the 2002 U.S.-Germany World Cup quarterfinal in Vegas at 4 a.m. in my room, huddled around a small TV with a couple of friends because the sportsbook in our hotel wouldn’t open for the game.
When the 2006 World Cup ended, it would have been normal for interest in the sport to fall again, but it didn’t. For the first time, soccer stayed with the national consciousness between major events.
In 2006, Fox Soccer became a soccer-only channel and continued to become available in more and more markets. With its broadcast of the English Premier League and ability to broadcast key matchups on its network channel, more and more Americans began to follow the sport on a weekly basis. And, with the advent and increased popularity of DVRs, it became easier to watch ESPN’s midday broadcasts of the UEFA Champions League.
Entering the 2010 World Cup, a broad coalition of American fans had developed and it was obvious that soccer was emerging as one of the U.S.’s major sports. Landon Donovan’s remarkable stoppage-time winner against Algeria to help the USMNT win their group over traditional world powerhouse England was just icing on the cake.
During the 2010 World Cup, back in Las Vegas, there were more anecdotal signs that the game was growing in America. I arrived on June 11th, in the morning, as Mexico was playing South Africa in the opening game of the tournament. The staff at the MGM was completely unprepared for the morning rush of soccer fans and lines for drinks and food stretched around the casino and sportsbook.
The next day, at the Hilton sportsbook to watch the U.S.-England game, things became so crowded that they were forced to open up their auditorium and play the game on a large screen to accommodate the overflow crowd. Soccer had clearly “arrived.”
A year later, at the 2011 Women's World Cup, Abby Wambach created her own Landon Donovan moment when she scored her own stoppage-time goal, helping lead the U.S. to a come-from-behind penalty shootout win against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals. Despite the fact that the U.S. lost in the final in penalties to Japan, Wambach’s goal remains the most iconic moment of that World Cup.
Since then, American interest in soccer has continued to grow and set records. In March, seven million Americans tuned in for the U.S.’s game against Mexico, setting a new record for a World Cup qualifier.
After May’s Champions League final, it was revealed that the tournament has had a 676 percent increase in viewership over the last decade.
In June, for the Confederations Cup, viewership of the group stage was up 26 percent from 2009 and numbers for the consolation final were up 44 percent (numbers for the final were down, but that was to be expected as the U.S. competed in the 2009 final).
And earlier this month, the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier set another new viewership record for a World Cup qualifier. The game also saw the hashtag #DosaCero (essentially an inside joke among soccer fans) trending on Twitter.
Besides viewership on television, American fan support at games is growing, both in volume and intensity. The U.S.’s game against Mexico this month in Columbus saw the creation of the largest supporters section ever with the fervor to match.
These fans are also willing to travel, as they did in March to the hostile environment of the Azteca in Mexico City. Compared to what they faced in Mexico, traveling to Brazil (a neutral environment assuming the U.S. doesn’t play the hosts), will be a cakewalk.
Much of this growing support for the USMNT is due to the efforts of the supporter’s group the American Outlaws, who now sponsor chapters in 94 American cities.
At home in Major League Soccer, fan support has also continued to grow and set records. And watching a Seattle Sounders or Portland Timbers match and their phenomenal supporter’s groups makes me want to move to the Northwest.
With the U.S. now officially qualified for the 2014 World Cup tournament in Brazil, the stage is set for this momentum to continue. While the World Cup won’t create a titanic shift in the American soccer landscape, it does represent an important opportunity for fan growth in a number of ways.
The major sports networks and newspapers, many of whom still treat soccer like a second-class citizen, will be forced to give soccer more coverage than usual during the World Cup. That increased exposure only helps grow the game.
Second, a World cup draws in casual fans in a way that a normal weekend MLS or EPL game does not. Americans love watching nation vs. nation contests as they do every two years for the Olympics, even when it is in a sport they care little about.
The fact that the U.S. will be competing with arguably their strongest team ever, can only help. Undoubtedly, the tournament will draw some of these casual fans closer to the game and some will continue their interest after the tournament ends.
From my own perspective, I can remember after the 2006 World Cup—not wanting that feeling to end—calling my satellite provider and adding Fox Soccer to my package. And shortly thereafter, completely drawn into the world of the EPL, I added Setanta, despite the $15 monthly charge.
The 2014 World Cup won’t represent a pendulum switch in American soccer interest, it will simply continue the swing that began 20 years ago when the U.S. hosted its first World Cup. And the U.S. will continue to set viewership and attendance records as the game continues to grow. And us diehard fans will continue to draw more and more Americans into our weird, albeit beautiful, world of soccer fandom.
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