American Soccer Continues to Climb

by John Furgele

In 1996, they tried again. The world’s game, soccer, was the only game that the United States didn’t want any part of it. There were many reasons for this, but I contend that the primary one as to why soccer had trouble gaining traction in this county was because it was not invented here. We invented the NFL version of football and no matter how dull it can be at times, we love it. The same can be said for baseball. It’s a game that came to prominence in America and even though we like to kick it and beat it up, it’s ours and we’ll defend it when the need arises.

Soccer was and remains an enigma. In the 1970s, the North American Soccer League took root and for a time, enjoyed some success. They brought in world class players and the New York Cosmos, with the likes of Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer drew crowds in excess of 75,000 at Giants Stadium. But, the NASL was only as strong as its weakest links and with the Cosmos came teams like the Minnesota Kick, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Cosmos threw the money around, got the best players while the rest of the league suffered. In 1985, it was all over.

It took 11 years, a World Cup and some vision, but American soccer got a second act in the form of Major League Soccer. This reincarnation saw the league own the teams, control player movement as well as salaries. Most MLS players made the same or perhaps less money than teachers, sales reps and office workers. As the league grew, the salaries grew, but even today with a new CBA just signed, the minimum salary is just $60,000.

At first, the atmosphere was sterile with 12,000 fans watching a game in a football stadium, but over time, teams started building soccer specific playpens. The Columbus Crew started the trend. Rather than play in 80,000 seat Ohio Stadium, they built one with 22,000, where fans could be on top of the action and where a crowd of 13,000 would still have a quaint feel to it.

The trend continued and now, most teams have their own stadiums and even the Seattle Sounders, who play in the same stadium as the NFL Seahawks, play to near capacity. Soccer has a lot going for it. The games take about 2 hours to play, which in this era of smartphones and short attention spans, plays well in today’s society. Sure, the action can bog down, but it is continuous. There are no timeouts, and the last three minutes doesn’t take 30 minutes to play like a college basketball game does. Soccer plays well in the suburbs with kids as young as four signing up for soccer tots and pre-K leagues. Parents like it because most league games are over in less than 75 minutes, so the whole weekend isn’t consumed by house soccer.

The average age of a soccer fan in the United States is 34 compared to 52 for baseball. While those numbers are often overstated, the soccer demographic is a good one. They’re young, they have a sense of purpose and because mainstream America largely ignores it, their pride shows through. Many fans sing throughout the games, giving it a fun, carnival like atmosphere.

There are now 20 teams in MLS; ten in each conference. And, because it’s America, MLS has playoffs, something that the European leagues don’t have and don’t want. But, America not only likes, but they require playoffs. So, even MLS was smart enough to cede to that American tradition. The season is long, going from March to December, but unlike the NBA and NHL where too many regular season games are played, each team plays 34 games and for the most part, it’s one game per week.

There are two new teams this year, the Orlando City SC and New York City FC and one that left in Chivas USA. The two newbies will be squaring off on Sunday, March 8 before 62,000 in the sold out Citrus Bowl in Orlando. The actual Citrus Bowl football game on January 1 didn’t draw that many. The people in Orlando are excited but the operators of the club know that 62,000 will not be the norm and next year SC moves into a downtown 19,000 seat venue.

There is considerable buzz in Orlando for the inaugural game. It can also be said that Orlando now has two major league teams because MLS is not a Triple A league. Is it as good as the English Premier League? Of course not, but it’s not too far behind and that comes from players who played there before coming to play in MLS.

If there is any indication of soccer’s popularity, don’t take my word, take that of the New York Yankees. The Yankees partnered with Manchester City (Premier League) and brought a second team to the New York metro. The team will play at Yankee Stadium while a new stadium is prepared, and demand for tickets has been strong. Nobody expects NYCFC to displace the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants and the others, but soccer just wants to find their niche and in the Big City, they certainly will.

The key for soccer in America is to keep the younger demographics, but also to find a way to get crossover fans. Take Philadelphia for example. Philly is a hard core sports town. They love their Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers. The Eagle fan roots for the Phillies for sure, but they likely don’t root and probably don’t care about the Union. If that can change; if the tough, brawny, Eagle fan can show some love to the soccer Union, then there is no telling how far soccer can go in this country.

The great thing about soccer is that it’s on its second generation of fans. The first generation back in 1996 has passed the game on to their kids and that’s a good thing. High school soccer is much improved and most colleges field soccer teams. The game has always been strong at the grassroots level, but now, it’s carried on to the professional level. And, unlike the halcyon days of Pele and the NASL, it’s not going away this time.

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