U.S. Soccer Scores Big, Narrows Gap on Global Competition

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IAugust 23, 2012

The U.S. women's soccer team took home the gold at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London
The U.S. women's soccer team took home the gold at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in LondonMichael Regan/Getty Images

Once deemed a sport belonging primarily to the rest of the world, soccer's popularity in the U.S. is booming. 

The sport made a huge splash in the late 1970s when Brazil's legendary Pelé and other top players joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  The resulting excitement helped spur interest and participation ever since.  More importantly, soccer's future in America appears as promising as it ever has been.

The accomplishments of the U.S. women's soccer team have been striking.  The women continued their dominance with their third consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer against Japan in a rematch of the 2011 Women's World Cup. 

Since its inception, the U.S. women's team has finished in the top three of the World Cup every time, winning in 1991 and 1999.  The popularity of some players, notably Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, has extended well beyond the sport.

Although the Women’s Pro Soccer League (WPSL) cancelled its 2012 season due to insufficient funding, a revival of women's professional soccer is in the works. 

Following the excitement and record ratings scored during NBC's coverage of the U.S. women's team at the London Olympics, it is little surprise that efforts to resurrect a women's league have begun. 

Speculation is that an eight-team league would launch in 2013.  This would certainly be a boost for women’s soccer and the sport as a whole.

Long overlooked by the rest of the world, the quality of American men's soccer has risen meteorically during the past two decades.  Although they did not qualify for London, the U.S. men made it to the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. team, ranked No. 36 globally, defeated Olympic gold-medal-winning Mexico on its home turf.  The victory marked the first win for the Americans in 24 tries (over 75 years) at the Estadio Azteca, a hostile environment in which to play.  Earlier this year, the U.S. men beat Italy 1-0 in their home stadium—it was the Americans' first-ever win over the Azzuri.

MLS is now the third-most attended sports league in America, a measurable indication of soccer's growth.  Fan support is particularly strong in Seattle, where the Sounders FC drew a crowd of more than 55,000 to a recent match against the Vancouver Whitecaps.  The Sounders have been averaging 42,000 in attendance at home games this year. 

Overall, MLS has drawn more than four million fans in 2012 and is considering adding a second New York-based team in Flushing, Queens, in an effort to appeal to the area's substantial Latin population.

There are more three million annual registrants in youth soccer programs, a surprising 50 percent higher than the number of kids registered in little league baseball yearly, according to a report by Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal

As the number of young soccer players grows larger, we can expect a continuation of the women's dominance in the sport and perhaps even a men's FIFA World Cup victory in Rio in 2014 or in Russia in 2018. 

While the game that the rest of the world calls "football" will likely never be a threat to the NFL in this country, its popularity is certainly on the rise.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.


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