June 8, 2014

Part five in a series.

Back to my original thesis, noted in part one: Americans love a winner, and the more success we achieve on the global stage, the more fans here are going to latch on.

...soccer might well have a bright future as a spectator sport in the US if we become an international power. That’s right. If our national team were one of the world’s top five sides, I assure you – I guarantee you – American consumers would fight for a front-row seat on the bandwagon. We’ve been told we ought to like soccer because everybody else does for all these years (and what do we hate worse than being told what we ought to do?), and meanwhile we’ve struggled to even qualify for the World Cup. We’ve gotten our knickers dusted on a regular basis by third-rate countries like freakin’ Brazil. And you want to tell me that if all of a sudden we were dominating the sport the way we dominate basketball that people wouldn’t be lining up for tickets and merchandise?

We're already seeing more and more American players succeeding internationally (and not just goalies, either), with Yanks playing in England (Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Brad Guzan), Holland (Aron Johansson), Mexico (DaMarcus Beasley), France (Alejandro Bedoya), and Germany (Tim Chandler, Fabien Johnson, Julian Green, John Brooks, Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones). Our two best players, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, have recently returned to MLS from Europe (England and Italy).

Clint Dempsey

Dempsey, who's easily the most accomplished scorer the nation has ever produced, enjoyed great success at Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham in the English Premiership, the world's top league.

Dempsey finished fourth on the FWA Footballer of the Year list behind winner Robin van Persie and Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, who came in second and third, respectively. Dempsey became the first American to reach the milestone of fifty goals in the Premier League, with a free-kick against Sunderland in the last home game of the season.

The national team has endured some growing pains since the arrival of new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but 2013 was perhaps the greatest non-World Cup year in team history, seeing them win the Gold Cup and tear through World Cup qualifying like a chainsaw through butter. Yesterday the team posted its best 2014 performance to date in a 2-1 defeat of Nigeria in its third Copa tune-up.

While the US has been drawn into a very difficult group - Ghana, Portugal, Germany - Saturday's impressive win, which saw a master class performance by Bradley and two breakout goals from the slumping Altidore, made the prospect of qualifying for the elimination rounds seem entirely plausible. It's going to be an uphill battle, of course - the group includes one of the tournament favorites and three more legitimate final 16 quality sides - but it wouldn't be a surprise if the US advanced. Winning an elimination match (likely against Belgium or perhaps Russia) would be a massive tipping point moment for American soccer.

In sum, then, soccer is poised for massive, sustained growth in the US at the same time our current alpha spectator sport is being eroded from the ground up by incredibly complex problems that suggest no obvious solutions. No one is predicting that football is going to go away for good (or that this shift will happen immediately), but it's hard to see how it can maintain its status in the face of the dynamics described in the first two installments of this series.

While I love football (despite not being very good at it when I played as a youth), I've also come to understand the passion attending world football culture. 2012's Champions League run by Chelsea FC was one of the most blindingly exciting things I have ever experienced in all my years of sports, and all those young people investing themselves in the supporters clubs are onto something. It's more than a group of folks in matching shirts getting together to watch games, it's genuine community.

I look forward to the coming years and the growth of "proper football" in the United States. And I hope that dedicated fans of American football will understand that this isn't an either/or proposition: it's okay to love them both.


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