On the eve of the new European soccer season, the world eagerly awaits the debut of Ronaldo and Kaka for Real Madrid, Eto'o for Inter, Ibrahimovic for Barcelona, and whether Manchester City's spending spree will be enough to dethrone one of the big four and obtain a coveted Champions League spot. Luckily, those of us in America have caught a glimpse of the excitement to come.
The languid American sports summer, when usually only baseball is in full swing, has been brightened by two full months of world-class soccer. Beginning in June with the Confederations Cup—where the United States impressed in the knockout stages—and continuing stateside with the World Football Challenge, the MLS All-Star game, and preseason tours of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the American viewing public has been exposed to the sport’s most famous faces and personalities right in our own backyard.
Each game—from the Milan derby in Boston during the WFC, to the Barcelona vs. Chivas friendly in San Francisco Saturday night—has been sold-out in front of exuberant crowds in baseball and football stadiums across the country.
Credit the barnstorming clubs for taking the tour seriously, evidenced by their physicality, pace of play, and numerous goal-scoring chances (except AC Milan, whose poor showing in America may very well be a precursor for long Serie A season). Due to the frantic transfer season, most players are still fighting for places in the starting line-up, and this increased competition for spots has directly led to an intense preseason with a mid-season feel.
The popularity of soccer grows every day in America. With every strong showing by the national team and every sold-out stadium; with every David Beckham free-kick, fan interaction (both good and bad) and advertising poster; with every goal replayed on SportsCenter and every match of the video game FIFA played.
Has anyone else noticed how much the video game has done promoting soccer to otherwise uninterested Americans? Friends of mine now recognize an AC Milan kit on a kid in line at the movie theatre, Thierry Henry from TV commercials, and that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is from Sweden.
The fall promises to continue the trend set this summer. Fox Soccer Channel has obtained the rights to over 100 Champions League games and ESPN has the rights to select La Liga matches, ensuring a healthy dose of European soccer on prime channels for months to come. As evidenced by the atmosphere in stadiums this summer, America obviously has a soccer soft spot—the key is to get the butts in the seats for an MLS game, not just when Real Madrid dismantles Toronto F.C or D.C United with ridiculous ball control and tactical ability.
But for now Sunil Gulati, Don Garber, and the other leaders of US soccer should take stock in the fact that their scheme is working and that the world’s biggest teams want to come here and plant roots in America.
For better or worse, Barcelona is rumored to be interested in purchasing an MLS team in the future, just as Arsenal have ties with the Colorado Rapids and Chivas de Guadalajara started Chivas USA. The league is expanding, welcoming a number of USL franchises to the league in 2010, Americans are making a difference for their teams overseas, and hey, at the very least, games played in the United States are being played less and less with football hash marks on the field.
So at least we've got that going for us; which is nice.