Slowly But Surely, Soccer Makes Its Mark in U.S.

By Ethan J. Skolnick
|  Monday, Jun 7, 2010  |  Updated 10:15 PM PDT
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Slowly But Surely, Soccer Makes Its Mark in U.S.

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PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 01: Landon Donovan midfielder of US national soccer kicks the ball during training on June 1, 2010 in Pretoria, South Africa. US will face England for their World Cup opener on June 12. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Landon Donovan

Those searching for sunny economic news might look toward the Space Needle, since help truly is wanted in the Emerald City.

“We needed extra staff,” says Gerry Leonard, the general manager of Fado Irish Pub in Seattle. “We’ve already hired extra guys for the kitchen, extra guys for the front of the house.”

So does this indicate that the nation is turning the fiscal corner?

Not really.

It just means that plenty of people in Seattle like watching corner kicks. Seattle is a city where support for Major League Soccer’s Sounders is as strong as — or stronger than — for Major League Baseball’s Mariners, with average crowds greater than 35,000 per match. And Fado’s is ranked the No. 1 soccer bar by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

So the World Cup is responsible for this job creation.

Soccer is the stimulus.

“We’re going to show every single game live,” Leonard says.

In that effort, Fado’s managers, cooks, bartenders and servers promise sleeplessness, virtually from the start of the World Cup’s month-long South Africa run. The tournament begins Friday, and Saturday, matches commence as early as 4:30 a.m. Pacific time. Leonard — or one of his employees — will open the doors 15 minutes before that, seven hours earlier than usual. During most of the day, Leonard is expecting crowds close to the pub’s 400-person capacity, especially during the United States’ highly anticipated matchup with England (which starts at 11:30 a.m. local time). The pub will close at 2 a.m., as usual.

“Then it’s time to clean the place up, and start all over again,” Leonard says.

The expected bustle at Fado’s might suggest to some that soccer’s time, in this country, has finally come. The question, however, is whether the excitement in that one spot, in one soccer-crazed city, can spread down the coast and across the plains. The World Cup is always a huge event internationally. But how big can it be domestically, in the country the world watches to see if it’s watching?

 

“My sense is that America is going to be very passionate about it,” says Alan Black, the Scotland-born co-author of the whimsical but reverential The Glorious World Cup: A Fanatic’s Guide. “Soccer has matured in this country over a period of 30 years. What’s interesting to me is that many American soccer fans have come to love the game through participating instead of through the media. This has created an understanding of the game. There’s a stealth wave that the traditional sports media have ignored.”

The sport does have many factors in his favor, perhaps more than ever before.

More than 4 million children in the United States are registered players. The U.S. is increasingly Hispanic, a portion of the population that tends to be passionate about the sport. Major League Soccer has been established for 15 years, and now includes 16 teams, many based in major cities such as Chicago, Washington D.C., Houston and Los Angeles.

ESPN, which has been bombarding viewers with World Cup promotion through commercials and on its signature show SportsCenter, will produce more than 250 hours of original programming and is presenting matches in high definition. The U.S. team has now qualified for six straight World Cups after missing the tournament for 40 years.

This year, the U.S. has a deep squad featuring players — Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey — who have fared well in international leagues and competition, and those players have been placed by FIFA in a favorable group, with the toughest match likely to come in the opener, a highly-awaited contest against traditional historical rival England. And major U.S. figures, from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton to Brad Pitt, has all taken an active interest in the bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

So is soccer primed for an explosion in popularity in America?

 

“There is no comparison as to the support, the exposure, the fan base and the knowledge, eight years ago to where it is today,” says ESPN analyst and former U.S. captain John Harkes. “It has grown tremendously. The core group of fans, but also the ones on the perimeter, are so interested as to how our team does. And the U.S. has done such a good job of growing the game the right way, and setting up resources for players, so they can be successful. My debut was May 23, 1987, and I can remember washing our own uniforms. Now look at the fields they have, the setup. (Coach) Bob Bradley has a great situation at Princeton.”

Harkes believes that the MLS’s existence and the U.S.’s consistent World Cup participation have provided a springboard, particularly with youth. “It was the most populated sport, but now it’s an educated sport,” Harkes says. “Kids are mimicking players across the entire MLS. Now they are starting to want to be the players that they see.”

That would be a major change. For years, kids have flocked to soccer fields in suburbs and cities, and even attended camps and clinics, in an effort to perfect their skills as strikers and stoppers. But that love of playing hasn’t generally translated into a genuine interest in watching, or dreaming. The best young athletes, even those with specific talents best suited for soccer, have been far more likely to idolize the likes of Alex Rodriguez, LeBron James or Peyton Manning. And soccer has struggled to capture the imagination of American sports spectators — and followers — in the same way as other team sports, particularly baseball, basketball and football.

So why the slow evolution?

David Henry Sterry, Black’s co-author, is the son of English immigrants. He grew up in Texas, playing fullback and rooting for the NASL’s Texas Tornadoes. “It was usually the long-haired freaky kids who played the game,” Sterry says. “The sport had a certain outsider quality that I loved.”

 

Over time, that “outsider” status became more of a curiosity to him. He’s encountered many sports fans, and even sportswriters, who have acted “threatened by the game. It didn’t make any sense to them. "‘The game ends 0-0, where is the excitement in that?’ People want to see the longball, and lots of points and runs, and that kind of action that is quantifiable. And in soccer, that’s not the way it’s set up. The old guard, it was kind of strange, I observed it again and again, there was almost this violent reaction against soccer, over the top attacking this game.”

Andy Markovits, a comparative politics professor at the University of Michigan, has heard all the arguments about what makes soccer unpalatable to many Americans, starting with those about the sport’s relative lack of offensive gratification. He doesn’t buy them.

“This is all historical,” says Marvokits, author of the new book Gaming the World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture. “It has nothing to do with the fact there’s no timeouts, and it’s low scoring. Baseball and hockey are low-scoring as well. I’m totally convinced that it has nothing to do with the sport itself. It is all about history. Basically, these are all sports languages. And soccer is a language Americans don’t speak. It has nothing to do with ‘they have no attention span.’ They have attention spans for baseball games. My gosh, four hours.”

Marvokits argues that America’s sports languages were created during a roughly 50-year period starting in 1860. Those preferred sports developed their own culture, statistics and heroes. And over time, each became even more entrenched, making it a challenge for other sports to break through. Yet, he adds, “There’s no reason for these languages to remain immutable. I don’t see a reason why, in 2050, the U.S. can’t be the best soccer nation. Or why Holland can’t be the best in baseball. Or Japan in basketball. These things switch. One day, people here will speak it. We are much better than we were 10 years ago. And we will be much better in 10 years. The trajectory has been phenomenal.”

Sterry noticed the "shift in the zeitgeist" during a recent interview by an older sportswriter: "The tone was not what’s wrong with soccer, but it’s like, ‘what’s wrong with me? Explain the game to me.’"

Markovits expects the World Cup to be “a big deal” in America, “maybe even watercooler talk,” because the tournament has been gradually Olympianized, with the pull of national identity making many care about a sport they might otherwise ignore.

But there’s one thing that Markovits, Sterry and Black all agree is most necessary to send the sport really soaring... through June, and July, and beyond.

“I think a lot depends on June 12th,” Sterry says. “When the U.S. plays England.”

“Very critical,” Black says. “That is the liftoff. It will propel the rocket fire.”

Some are calling it the biggest game in American soccer history. And it comes up first, before the U.S. plays Slovenia or Algeria.

“A rivalry with an old colonial master, and now we have a chance to defeat them on the world stage,” says Black, who identifies himself as American after living half his life here. “And I think the rest of the world, I think, will be supporting the United States in this game. We are the underdog here, and the U.S. usually doesn’t get treated like underdog on world stage. The England’s superiority complex is larger than their beer gut. They tend to think everybody else should be on bended knee, in front of great crown of soccer they have put on their heads. So we have the opportunity to knock it off.”

And should the U.S. lose or, worse, fall to advance out of the first round?

“People will say, ‘Oh well, same old thing it always was. All this and for what?'” Sterry says. “America likes winners.”

America won the U.S. women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999.

“But it has to come from the men’s side,” Markovits says. “Our women are sensational, but that is just not going to create sports culture. If the U.S. excels in it, it will have a major spillover to soccer. Soccer is not going to touch the big three in my lifetime — I just turned 60. But it might become like hockey.”

 

And it could create a virtuous cycle, where the success of the U.S. team inspires even more gifted youngsters to stay with a sport they already play, but didn’t once view as a potential career.

“In a couple of generations, you are going to see more great athletes play soccer,” Sperry says. “I envision a day when (athletes like) Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are twin strikers, and Ray Lewis as a central defender, and Derek Jeter running the football. When we gravitate toward soccer, then we will win the World Cup. And I don’t think it’s that far away.”

Markovits won’t go that far. But he does believe as more kids learn to “speak soccer” as well as they speak baseball and basketball and football, then they’ll be less prone to abandon a sport for which they may best suited in favor of one in which they are less likely to excel.

“Here’s the thing,” Markovits says. “There is a 20 million person supply. People play it. And they play it the way they bowl or fish or bicycle. Of these, very few will have the ability but also connect in a way that is part of culture. If in fact we win, more of these 12-year-old kids connect. The pool enlarges. And yes, I think we will get better.”

If so, soccer is sure to get bigger.

And Fado Irish Pub’s competition — for top soccer bar — is sure to get tougher.

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