The time has come for soccer in America

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September 11, 2007

2:15 PM

On a balmy Sunday afternoon several months ago, a capacity crowd of chanting, screaming fans packed Chicago’s historic Soldier Field on the shores of Lake Michigan. No, they were not there to see their beloved Bears take on the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game, nor did they come to see a Bon Jovi concert. The 63,000-plus in attendance that day were rabid soccer fans, eager to watch the United States men’s national team take the field against their bitter Mexican rivals. When 22-year old American midfielder Benny Feilhaber launched a 20-yard rocket into the back of the net for the game winning goal, the reaction among the assembled Chicagoans was every bit as emphatic as that of a Brian Urlacher interception return for a touchdown.

p. That moment, much more so than David Beckham’s circus-inducing tour of the United States, is perfectly representative of the rapid growth that soccer has gained among the sports-conscious of this nation in the last decade. With Major League Soccer about to conclude its 12th year of existence with an ever strengthening fan base and increased financial stability, and a multitude of young, high profile American players journeying abroad to play for the world’s top clubs, the “beautiful game” has finally reached a tenable position in the American sports hierarchy. In short, as the Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial on ESPN asserts, “soccer’s time has come.”

p. In the summer of 1968, the North American Soccer League began play with 16 teams spread throughout the United States and Canada. To many Americans, this was their first introduction to the sport of soccer, and the fledgling league made a deep impact. In 1971, the famed New York Cosmos franchise was founded and worked to employ such legendary players as Georgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and the incomparable Pelé. In the short span of a few seasons, the Cosmos became a prime destination for many New Yorkers as they routinely filled Giant’s Stadium en route to the 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1982 league titles. In 1978 alone, they averaged over 47,000 paying spectators per game, dwarfing the attendance of such Big Apple mainstays as the Yankees and Mets.

p. However, it was quickly realized that the NASL was not financially viable, with the top teams drawing all the fans and resources. While the Cosmos played to packed houses in New York, many other franchises struggled to draw as few as 5,000 fans a game, as most owners saw their bottom line remain firmly in the red. As a result of these financial shortcomings, the NASL folded after the 1984 season, stranding countless new American soccer fans.

p. This footballing morass remained until the creation of the MLS, which began play in 1996. Drawing strength from the success of the U.S. hosted 1994 World Cup, the league began amid modest popularity, with attendance numbers paling in comparison to those of the NASL at its height. The collective owners of MLS took great pains, however, in avoiding the pitfalls of their predecessor, and created a structure that would grow slowly but steadily, thus remaining more financially sustainable and depressing the possibilities of the huge spending sprees that were the death of the NASL. The result is a league that has continued to prosper a decade after its inception. Seven of the 13 MLS franchises play their home games in soccer specific stadiums, which foster a much more enjoyable atmosphere than that of a cavernous NFL stadium, while turning a much greater profit.

p. Even stronger evidence of the MLS’s success is the league’s recent record against clubs from much more famous and talented soccer nations. In the recent Superliga tournament, which pits MLS teams against their counterparts in Mexico’s Primera Liga, three out of the four semifinalists were American clubs, while the MLS All-Star Team has defeated United Kingdom powerhouses Chelsea and Celtic in consecutive years. Additionally, American players are traveling abroad in record numbers, testing their skills in top foreign leagues.

p. Four out of the 20 starting goalkeepers in this year’s English Premiership — what is unanimously regarded as one of the top leagues in the world — are U.S. citizens, a proportion that is higher than that of every other nation except the soccer-mad United Kingdom. Without a doubt, the United States is producing soccer players who are competitive with the best in the world.

p. Never before in the history of American soccer have all three key ingredients for success been simultaneously present. While the NASL brought in legions of fans, it neither produced a consistently good field of players nor prospered financially, shutting it down after a brief existence. The MLS at present has grown to the point where the on-field product is very competitive, creating a fan base and turning a modest profit. Finally, that perfect Sunday afternoon in the Windy City embodied everything that the early founders of the NASL envisioned soccer would one day become in this nation: a team of American players defeating their most bitter rivals to the joyful cries of passionate American fans. Indeed, soccer’s time has come.

p. __E-mail Matt Poms at mbpoms@wm.edu.__

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