World Cup Impact on Soccer in America
It's the obvious question facing the American soccer industry in the aftermath of the U.S. team's emotional -- and ultimately disappointing -- run at the World Cup, which ended on Saturday with a 2-1 second-round defeat to Ghana. It's silly to debate whether soccer has now officially "arrived" in the U.S., but it's also time to stop questioning whether Americans care about the sport.
There's clearly an audience that will pay attention to soccer played at the highest level. ESPN's World Cup ratings are up 60% this year compared to 2006, and Saturday's U.S.-Ghana game attracted nearly 15 million viewers on ABC, on par with the first two games of this year's NBA Finals. (The total U.S. audience for the game, including those who watched Spanish-language broadcasts and online, was close to 20 million, making it the most watched soccer game ever in America.)
On the field, a host of deficiencies that have bedeviled U.S. soccer for years were exposed again in this year's tournament, as FanHouse's Brian Straus outlined so well here. There are big decisions looming for key members of the 2010 U.S. team, ranging from the fate of head coach Bob Bradley, who inexplicably started midfielder Ricardo Clark against Ghana and whose contract expires in December; to the career choices of top players such as Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, who figure to receive offers from top-tier European clubs based on their performances at the Copa.
There's also some harsh reality to face. In terms of actual achievement on the world's biggest soccer stage, our national team has not progressed since 2002. It's easy to forget in our internet-addled, attention-deficit era, but eight years ago, the U.S. beat arch-rival Mexico in the second-round, outplayed Germany during several stretches of the quarterfinal, and should have been given a penalty kick on a handball before running out of time in a 1-0 loss to the Germans, who ultimately lost to Brazil in the championship game.
So again, what happens now? Will Donovan's memorable goal against Algeria be another blip on America's sports radar, like Michael Phelps or Mary Lou Retton? Or will it be a decisive game-changer that elevates soccer into to something beyond a quadrennial TV spectacle?
The simple truth is that there are systemic shortcomings in the U.S. soccer business that must be addressed before we can sit at the big boys table of global soccer. And at the end of the day, the future of American soccer will be determined, to a large degree, off the field.
It will be shaped by executives of Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation, who must work together to identify talented prospects at a younger age and give them professional training. MLS clubs have only recently begun setting up youth teams in their local areas.
In the rest of the world, the local pro team is the premiere source of youth scouting, recruitment and training. That model is foreign to Americans -- we expect our high schools and colleges to do that. You don't see the Yankees, for example, setting up a vast scouting and training network in Manhattan to find 8-year-olds who might be the next Mariano Rivera. But that's standard practice in international soccer.
To a large degree, elite American youth soccer is still oriented around affluent, suburban teams that are supported by parents and run by amateurs. There's more emphasis on winning trophies than practice time, and games often feature "Americanized" game rules, like unlimited substitutions, that are unheard of in the rest of the world.
Claudio Reyna, the former captain of the national tam who now oversees youth training for U.S Soccer, told me recently that his mission is to get the most promising American players working with top coaches at a much younger age than they do now -- even as young as eight or nine years old.
For the last decade, a selection of the best 16 and 17-year old Americans have trained together year-round at a facility in Bradenton, FL. The program's alumni include Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley, who were all part of its inaugural class. But even that initiative is inadequate, according to Reyna, because the players arrive too late, with too many bad habits already ingrained.
The better news: MLS is in much better position to take advantage of the current World Cup momentum than it was in 2002. Back then, the league was in disarray and on the verge of halting operations for a year. It was paying ESPN to televise its games, franchises in Tampa and Miami had just folded, only one team played in its own stadium, and six of the league's 10 clubs were operated by Phil Anschutz, the Colorado billionaire who owns the Anschutz Entertainment Group.
MLS is still a far cry from England's Premier League -- or even Holland's Eredivisie -- but it has made considerable strides.
The league, which is now in its 15th season, had added six franchises since 2004, with teams in Portland, Vancouver and Montreal scheduled to begin play in the next two years. AEG is no longer the de facto owner of the league -- it is now the sole operator of just one team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, though it still has a 50% stake in the Houston Dynamo.
The league receives rights fees from ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel and Univision for its games, and ten of the league's 16 current clubs play in soccer-specific venues such as the just-opened PPL Park, home to the expansion Philadelphia Union, and the New York Red Bulls' new $250 million, 25,189-seat stadium in Harrison, NJ. MLS even has labor peace, striking a new collective bargaining agreement with its players just hours before a strike threatened to delay the start of this season.
That said, MLS' unusual single-entity structure -- the league owns all player contracts -- and comparatively minuscule salary cap severely limit teams' ability to sign foreign players or even keep top Americans from signing with second-tier European clubs in Denmark or Belgium. Only four of the 23 players on this year's World Cup team play in MLS, and the best of the four, Donovan, will almost certainly leave soon for a more lucrative deal in Europe -- he's already been linked to a move to Manchester City, which is owned by Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Likewise, the level of play in MLS is decidedly inferior compared to leagues in England, Spain and Italy, even with the infusion of David Beckham and a few other aging stars. Passionate U.S. soccer fans, the people who should be MLS' core audience, can now easily see the best European and South American clubs any night on the week on cable, and the contrast between, say, a Manchester United-Chelsea match and a FC Dallas-Chivas USA MLS game is striking -- and not in a good way for MLS.
It's easy to throw money at a problem, but in the case of MLS, that really is necessary. Americans have shown they will care about top-flight soccer. The billionaires who've invested in MLS through lean times, who've labored to build stadiums, must now do more to bring top-flight talent to MLS. At the very least, they need to invest in developing younger players with the aim of reaping rich transfer fees. That's the model embraced by top clubs in Holland, France, and South America, who can't compete with richer teams in England and Spain but have carved out a sustainable business nonetheless.
The reality is that no matter how far the U.S. national team advanced at this World Cup, the next World Cup, or the one after that, soccer is unlikely to break the stranglehold of the holy trinity of American pro sports -- the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA -- or leapfrog over the multi-billion-dollar industries known college football and college basketball. That's too much to ask -- just ask hockey.
We've only been competing with the titans of global soccer since 1990, when the US earned its first World Cup berth in 40 years. As recently as the mid-'80s, the U.S. men's national team was playing World Cup qualifiers at a dumpy junior college field in suburban Los Angeles. Now, 25 years later, more than a million people went to their computers to watch an American score a goal at a stadium eight time zones away from suburban L.A. Imagine what our passion will be like in another 25 years.
Americans are really good at a lot of sports. In the U.S, a Chris Paul becomes a point guard, a Chase Utley goes to second base and a LaDanian Thomlinson ends up as a tailback plowing over linebackers for touchdowns. There are deep-seated cultural and economic reasons why they chose those sports and not soccer. But what if they all ended up as midfielders instead?
Put it another way: In Argentina, in Brazil, in Germany, in Holland, in Ghana and in most every country in between (except, oh, Canada and India), there's only one sport that matters on the weekend -- and it ain't SEC football, Big East basketball or the Yankees-Red Sox rubber game.
Does that mean that the USA can't have a robust pro soccer league or an elite national team? Of course not. But it will take time. And it will take work, plenty of money and some good luck -- and not necessarily in that order.