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Is the Tide Turning at Last for Soccer in the U.S.?

by on June 21, 2016 6:00 AM

Around our house lately a good bit of soccer has been viewed on the television, and a similar scenario is playing out in many households all around the world.

Two simultaneous tournaments – the Copa América Centenario and the UEFA Euro 2016 – are being contested in the United States and France respectively. The Copa América Centenario is being played by 16 nations from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. The UEFA Euro 2016 features 24 European nations vying for the Henri Delaunay Cup. And lots of eyes are watching. Even here in the United States.

I am of the generation that as a kid received their June 23, 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine in the mail with Pelé on the cover and a headline trumpeting “Pelé’s Triumphant Debut, U.S. Soccer Finds A Savior.” We were being told that soccer – the original football – was finally here to stay and would be joining the professional sports league big times. The North American Soccer League had lots of teams, money was being spent to woo star players and fans were flocking to matches. Look out world – the United States was going to become a force in your game!

Of course, here we are more than 40 years later and, well, let’s just say we’ve certainly seen some changes in the game in this country, but no one is honestly suggesting that Major League Soccer, the current “premier” professional league in this country – the North American Soccer League does exist again – rivals the talent or quality of the English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, or even Serie A.

Before I go any further, I would like to give a shout-out to the women of America. The United States women hold three FIFA Women's World Cup titles – more than any other country – and have won gold medals in four of the five Olympics in which women’s soccer has been contested. Not to mention the Penn State women’s team won a national title this year! Basically United States women rule the women’s world soccer scene. But, apologies in advance, for this article I’ll be referring to the men’s game.

So... let’s get some odd historical facts out of the way. This touting of the “birth” of American soccer in the 70s was more a promotional concoction than truth. The United States joined FIFA in 1913. The American Soccer League was created as this country’s first professional soccer league several years before the first nationwide professional football league ever played a down. The National Challenge Cup, which is now the US Open Cup, crowned America’s first soccer champion in 1914.

Locally we have reminders of our earlier soccer excellence. Walter Bahr -- who would become Penn State’s head coach -- played on the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that famously beat Britain. Ron Coder -- star goalkeeper on Penn State’s 1950 and 1951 national championship teams --  was a member of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1956 Summer Olympics.

The United States sports fan has seen flashes of outstanding soccer for more than a century.

Moving to the present day, Major League Soccer (MLS) has been around for 20 years – four more than the last pro soccer league survived – and features 20 teams. Many play in stadiums built specifically for them, which is considered a benchmark for viability. The seats are filled and MLS plans to add 4 more teams by 2020. The future looks stable.

Though, as I said before, no one is mistaking the MLS for a top-tier foreign league, which could be to its benefit. Teams occasionally sign a high-profile foreign star but seem to be focused on operating fiscally sound businesses that will last. And in a nod to homegrown talent, 11 of the 23 current members of the U.S. Men’s National team list their home professional club as an MLS team.

In other words, it is very possible that good quality professional soccer is finally here to stay in the United States.

Which brings me to a thought and a few questions.

Throughout history we humans have enjoyed gathering en masse for athletic contests. A hundred thousand people, all in one space, sharing kinship, cheering on a sporting event. In the United States that yearning is filled in the largest way by football games and auto races. But with the smallest major race tracks encompassing areas four times larger than a football field, football games get the most humanity in the smallest space.

Our own local football stadium seats more than 100,000 cheering fans.

Yet in many other countries the sport that satisfies this yearning to join together in a mass of humanity is soccer.

And in this country right now football is under attack. Concussions are being touted in the media as a major legal liability. Lawsuits are being filed and Hollywood has released a movie depicting the issue. Former players are alleging mistreatment, current players are wondering about the effects of playing, and most importantly, parents and children are asking themselves if the game is worth playing if the results might be an early death.

All of which could just be hype and elevation of the few over the many. Surely thousands play and have played the game without any ill-effects. But for good or bad, football is the king of the sports mountain in this country and as such gets the focus of the heat.

That brings me to my questions. Might we be at the proverbial tipping point when American society has a sea-change and we move toward the day when soccer replaces football as the sport of large spectacle in this country? When real “football” becomes THE football?

Will science and legal attacks cause a slow turning of the ocean liner that is the football industry?  May a day arrive when we no longer need Jeffrey Field because the soccer teams will be playing in Beaver Stadium? When the NCAA will increase scholarship limits for soccer teams? When more young men around the country will dream of being drafted by the MLS instead of the NFL?

Given the money tied up in football I doubt that happens anytime soon, if ever. Those running the sport will find ways to ensure its continued survival and dominance of the fans, money and media in America. Even at the youth level, locally one just needs to look at the high school yearbook to see the number of boys playing football far exceeds the number playing soccer. And popularity at the youth level feeds up the line.

But with the current legal issues, medical concerns, the demographic changes in this country, and the technology advances that continue to shrink and homogenize the world, it is an interesting possibility to consider.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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