As an American in his mid-twenties, I grew up in a time when soccer, especially youth soccer, was just as viable of a choice as playing baseball or football. Barring the usual comments of “soccer isn’t as physical as football” and “its a wuss’ sport”, it really was no different in the eyes of, say, someone like my father, who didn’t really get the sport, and, even though he’s a 2nd generation Romanian immigrant, frequently called it an immigrant’s game. Soccer has slowly become a popular sport to play and, now, a sport to watch here in the US.
While soccer will probably never reach the status of the NFL, MLB or the NBA it still has a place in our country. It really shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone that soccer has increased in popularity since the early nineties, when the MLS was founded and the US hosted the World Cup. As the world slowly shrinks thanks to the Internet, more accessible cable television, etc. it makes it much easier to learn about different cultures and their sports. As a teenager, playing soccer in high school, had I had more access to international games from Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN and online portals such as Ustream and ESPN3 I feel like not only would it have made me a better player, but I would have had more of interest in it as a culture, not just as a sport.
Compared to the NASL from the seventies, and the MISL in the eighties and nineties, the MLS seems like the best chance soccer has had in America so far. This may be because of the people in charge, who aren’t looking for a quick phenomenon like the Cosmos, but building a tradition, a culture, like the rest of the world. As the US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati has put it:
The MLS is not trying to be baseball. It’s not trying to be the NFL. These are both sports with major history behind them. My favourite catchphrase when people ask me how long it will take for soccer and the MLS to prosper is simple, tradition takes time. We don’t expect a single event and the viewing figures to change the landscape of our game overnight, but the sport has been on a pretty upward trend for a while now. The difference between 1994 when the US hosted the World Cup and now is that we have a sixteen team league, ten soccer specific stadiums, soccer on TV and players who the public know about.”
With the arrival of David Beckham in LA in 2007, even though his time there has been short (I can’t really blame him), and now Thierry Henry in New York, Soccer should have an even better chance of gaining national attention and, hopefully, creating a sustaining culture in the decades to come. Also, with these aging players coming from Europe to extend their careers and get a little more playing time, perhaps the MLS can find its niche in the global Soccer arena as a place for players, like Henry or Beckham to, to do so. If that is the case, maybe we’ll see Van Bommel, Juninho or Del Piero stateside at some point?