Friday, June 20, 2014

Will Soccer Stick in America THIS Time?

Sure, we're all into soccer now, but will the sport matter in America after the World Cup?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

With the World Cup in full swing, American sports fans are finding themselves in an odd place: Pretending to care about the world's game.

America's thrilling 2-1 win over Ghana Tuesday surely enhanced the image of US Soccer, especially after the national side was eliminated by Ghana in the last two World Cups, but it also helped us understand why we've managed care so much about the World Cup, while not holding particular interest in the goings on of world soccer for the last two decades.

The World Cup is the last place where beating a "pretty good" team from a midsized nation is a step in the right direction for America. Once every four years, we Americans get to feel like underdogs and cheer with house money against nations that have been playing soccer longer and care about it far more.

The US Men's National Team is the last American competitive entity where baby steps can be taken and moral victories exist. Combine that with the fact that multiple generations have now grown up playing soccer as children, and you have a recipe for legitimate interest in the sport following the World Cup.

I think.

If you would have asked me this eight, or even four years ago, I would have said absolutely not. I would have said that people will cheer for America in the World Cup, because #Merica, and interest will surge as the national team wins and wane as it loses. But I'll be damned if America isn't turning into a bit of a soccer nation, albeit one where soccer will likely be the fourth or fifth most popular sport.

But that's a step in the right direction for the the game domestically, and if America simply cares about soccer as much as it cares about hockey, there is more than enough talent for the USA to compete at the world's highest level in the coming generations.

Soccer as popular as hockey, could that actually happen? Yes, and it could come quicker than you think.

Just look at Major League Soccer. Long thought of as a secondary league in the American sports landscape, the MLS has grown from 10 to 19 teams in its 18-year history, and cities like Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City can claim to have legitimate fanatics.

After watching two Florida franchises fail in its early days (Miami and Tampa Bay both folded after the 2001 season), the league is expanding back into the Sunshine State with a proposed franchise in Miami before 2020, and an Orlando club set to begin play next year.

Perhaps the coup de Grace for the MLS will be adding another team in New York to play home games in Yankee Stadium next season, but the addition of an Atlanta club in 2017 is also huge for the up-and-coming league.

By 2020, the league plans to have 24 teams, and will have most major markets (NY, LA, CHI, MIA, DAL, BOS, PHI, DC, HOU, ATL) covered. While the league will probably never compete with England's Premiership, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A or the top German and Dutch leagues, just having a respectable league that can house some international level players, even if only at the beginning or end of their careers, will help to grow the game immensely.

The MLS is already outdrawing the NHL and NBA on a per game basis, though it plays about half the games of those two established American sports leagues, but profitability has been coming since around 2004.

If the MLS and American soccer are to take the next step, changes will need to be made. The MLS instituted a salary cap at its inception, mostly to avoid the fate of unsustainable spending suffered by previous American soccer leagues. It was a great idea to get the fledgling league off the ground, but now that the league as a whole is profitable, it may be time to rethink that.

An average MLS player still only makes a little over $160,000 a year, around half of what second-tier players are paid in Europe. As the league grows, with extensive stadium and jersey sponsorships, along with television deals with ESPN, that number must go up to make it competitive outside of US (and Canadian) borders.

The goal will be for the US to be a player internationally, so we can't be afraid to have a few clubs spending money. I doubt anyone will tell you that the uber spending of English clubs Manchester United or Chelsea, or the massive payrolls of Spanish sides Barcelona or Real Madrid is hurting interest in the game in those countries due to a lack of "parity."

The MLS has already taken steps toward this, instituting the Designated Player Rule, which allows teams to sign one player that doesn't count toward their salary cap. The most famous "Designated Player" in MLS history is still the first one, English superstar David Beckham.

Another change that will need to be made is in the structure of the very league itself. Right now, the MLS is a single entity, owned by a group of investors, rather than an association of independent teams.

That will need to change if MLS teams ever hope to compete for any top international talent, or simply look to keep some of the more popular American players in the states. Growing the league's youth program initiative will also be vital to soccer's success in the coming generations. More games for MLS teams against clubs from the world's best league will increase level of competition, and an influx of foreign bought talent and coaching should bring the game's newest strategies and training methods to our shores.

So, will soccer ever be America's national past time? Probably not, but that doesn't mean the USA can't become one of the world's great soccer nations. With a massive population, huge economy, and diversity of both environment and people, America is already a respected team on the international stage.

The next step toward world class soccer will be getting average Americans to care during those 47 months between World Cups.

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