Why Soccer's Future in the U.S. is Bright


The World Cup was supposed to be crucial for something called The Future of American Soccer.

Soccer's showcase tournament, being played in the United States, has been an artistic as well as financial success -- especially compared with the boring matches in the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. team performed respectably, advancing to the second round and losing by only 1-0 to Brazil, a traditional soccer superpower.

This combination of events is supposed to mean that soccer will "make it" in the United States.

But even with the success so far, commentators are starting to ask: Will the surge in soccer interest fade, or will soccer finally "make it?"

There are two things wrong with framing the question that way: The concept of "making it" is never quite defined; and no attention is paid to other factors which will contribute to soccer's continued growth in the United States.

It's not clear what would constitute "making it" for soccer in the United States.

Winning the World Cup? Only six countries have ever won, but no one would argue that soccer has not "made it" in the Netherlands or Nigeria or Honduras and El Salvador (where a dispute from two soccer matches led to a war 25 years ago).

A professional league which competes on even terms with baseball, basketball and football for American attention and dollars? The other sports have generations of promotion; it's unreasonable to expect soccer to catch up overnight.

A professional league which competes with the best European leagues for talent? Not even Brazil can claim that; many of its stars play in Europe.

None of these seems a likely prospect in the short term. Whatever the standard, gains for American soccer will not come suddenly, but gradually. And they have been coming for a generation. The World Cup was awarded to the United States in part to provide another boost, but also in recognition that the U.S. was beginning to develop world-class players and had enough fans to fill stadiums. There are 16 million soccer players in the United States (12 million of them kids).

Second, it's a mistake to give the World Cup all the credit for whatever growth U.S. soccer shows in the future. Probably more important for nurturing the game are social and economic trends.

The world is getting smaller. Business is getting more multinational. I don't know how to quantify this, but I can offer this example: My family went to Norway's match in Washington with some acquaintances from Norway and to Netherlands' match with Dutch professors who brought orange shirts and caps and face paint to America with them.

What can be quantified is increasing immigration to the United States and the growing Hispanic segment of the population. An Urban Institute study offers these estimates for overall immigration (legal and illegal) by decade: 1930s, 0.5 million; 1940s, 1.0 million; 1950s, 2.5 million; 1960s, 3.8 million; 1970s, 7.0 million; 1980s, 10.0 million.

Hispanics, it is estimated, will pass African-Americans to become the country's largest minority group, in the year 2008. Less than 1 percent of the population at the turn of the century, Hispanics are now 9 percent of Americans, and projected to rise to as much as 18 percent by 2040.

A good indicator of both a growing Hispanic population in the United States and their interest in soccer is in the TV ratings. According to Neilson Media Research, more than a million homes were tuned to Univision, the Spanish-language cable station, for each of six different World Cup matches so far.

We tend to think of youth soccer as somewhat of a yuppie sport, and it is extremely popular in upper-middle-class suburbs. But much of soccer's strength still comes from immigrants and the sons of immigrants, as suggested by the roster of the U.S. team: Marcelo Balboa, Fernando Clavijo, Frank Klopas, Tony Meola, Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna.

Next spring, yet another outdoor professional soccer league will try to get started in the United States. But even if attendance comes nowhere close to the capacity World Cup crowds, it doesn't mean that holding the World Cup in America was a failure. It doesn't mean soccer is dead here.

Soccer is alive, and it will continue to grow in the United States. And while the World Cup will have contributed, it certainly won't be the only cause.

M. William Salganik is editor of The Sun's Perspective section.

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