CHICAGO — From California to the Carolinas, from soccer aficionados to those who can just about pick David Beckham out in a tabloid photo, the World Cup is generating some serious buzz in the United States.
Americans have bought more tickets than people from any country besides host South Africa — despite the lengthy and expensive trip. ESPN and ABC are planning the kind of broadcast bonanza normally reserved for a Super Bowl. Players are edging supermodels off magazine covers.
Soccer isn’t in the same league as the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, not yet. But its time is coming. Slowly, but surely. It’s an evolution, not a revolution, and people who run the sport in the United States are ready for that, with the 2010 World Cup another milestone along the way.
“It’s definitely moving in the right direction for, I think, multiple reasons,” former U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “We’ve made some great strides ... and I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen in the next 20 to 30 years. That’s where the gauge really starts to be measured.”
For the better part of the last four decades, soccer fans have been insisting it’s only a matter of time before the entire country falls for the game the way the rest of the world has. To which the skeptics and critics have always responded, “When?”
Grade schoolers have been playing soccer by the millions, and that hasn’t turned the United States into a soccer nation. There are D-list celebrities who get more attention than Major League Soccer stars. The Americans have played in the last five World Cups after going 40 years between appearances, and the best they’ve done is the quarterfinals.
But writing off soccer isn’t that easy, not when the sport has a complicated landscape.
Fans of the U.S. national team aren’t necessarily MLS fans. Some second- and third-generation Americans remain passionate supporters of Mexico, Poland or wherever their relatives came from. Those who will get up early each weekend for games in the various European leagues or shell out $100 for a Lionel Messi jersey might be indifferent to anything the game has to offer stateside.
Only when you take them all together is soccer’s growing reach — and its massive potential — clear.
“We’ve still got a long way to go to have the following, the enthusiasm, the relevance that you might have in England or Germany or Brazil,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. “We’re in progress but we’re not there yet. Having it woven into society, that’s a long-term challenge.”
In other words, Americans aren’t going to wake up the day after the July 11 final to find soccer has supplanted the NFL.
But the game’s growth over the past 20 years has put U.S. Soccer, MLS, broadcasters and corporate sponsors in their best position yet to capitalize on the enthusiasm from the monthlong tournament.
“Given the promotion that’s taken place, given the visibility, does it enter the American psyche?” Gulati said. “We’re going to have watercooler talk this summer, no doubt about that. The question is how much does it go beyond that?”
The Walt Disney Co. networks are betting heavily it goes far, putting together a World Cup staff even bigger than that of Britain’s BBC. “SportsCenter” will be broadcast live from Johannesburg, and 250 hours of original programming — that’s more than 10 days of TV — are being produced.
Most games will also be available on the Internet and ESPN Mobile.
All this follows ESPN’s increased coverage of the European Championships, English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Fox has gotten into the act, too, with its Fox Soccer Channel taking over as primary U.S. broadcaster of the Champions League this season.
Soccer is on the “cusp,” Fox Sports chairman David Hill said, predicting the sport will be bigger than the NHL in 10 years.
“The TV stations wouldn’t be showing it if people weren’t watching it,” Keller said. “They have to make money. They’re not doing it for charity or because they’re soccer fans. They’re doing it because there’s a market for it, and that’s a big indicator of where the game is going.”
Back home, MLS is thriving in its 15th season. There are currently 16 teams, with clubs beginning play in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2011, and Montreal in 2012. Ten teams play in soccer-specific stadiums that accentuate the skill and beauty of the game, with Kansas City scheduled to open an 11th next year.
Seattle draws a whopping 36,144 fans for home games, and three other teams are averaging 19,000 or better. Toronto has sold out every home game since it began play in 2007.
The quality in MLS isn’t anywhere close to Europe’s top leagues, but the gap is narrowing. And, everyone is quick to point out, the league is still in its infancy.
“We’re only 15 years old. Professional soccer in Europe is 100 years old,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “We have generations of growth in front of us, and we’re empowered by the fact we know that we’re new and young and we have our best days ahead of us.”
Besides, a second-tier league is better than no league at all.
Players have to play to develop, and it’s hardly a surprise that the United States’ rise in international stature coincides with the creation of MLS. A college scholarship was the best most players could do 30 years ago. Now guys are parlaying MLS experience into spots on the U.S. team and big-money jobs in Europe.
“I was fortunate enough to be there back in the ‘70s, and we had some fantastic young players. I just felt they didn’t get the exposure and time. There was nowhere for them to go,” said Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, who was a player-manager with Seattle in the waning days of the North American Soccer League.
“With competition, it’s only a matter of time before more and more fantastic American players come through,” Redknapp said. “They produce just so many people there, so many athletes, and there’s no reason they can’t produce soccer players if they get the experience and the right coaching.”
Indeed, the United States had 4.3 million registered players in 2008, according to U.S. Soccer, more than any other country besides Germany. About 94 percent of that number was kids, the first generation to grow up surrounded by soccer.
“It’s very different than when we grew up and soccer was completely inaccessible. There was no league, no TV,” agent Richard Motzkin said. “There’s more access to information and education, and that will translate to more kids getting to understand the sport, loving the sport and wanting to play the sport at higher levels.”
To ensure it gets the most out of that vast talent pool, U.S. Soccer recently appointed longtime U.S. captain Claudio Reyna as youth technical director, and charged him with creating a curriculum for coaches of kids 6 to 12.
The United States can have a professional league and the best training facilities in the world. But if the basics aren’t being taught properly, the Americans will continue to lag behind the Brazils, Spains and Englands.
“The coaching part of the equation is the most important part, really,” Reyna said. “How are our players being taught the game and how that can be improved is the most important piece of how we can improve and start showing the potential of our country.”
But perhaps the biggest things going in soccer’s fight for rock-star relevance have nothing to do with the beautiful game.
Technology has made the world smaller, and it will only continue to shrink. Thanks to the Internet and satellite television, games in London are as accessible as games in Los Angeles. Spring break trips, study-abroad programs and business travel give Americans an up-close look at the game at its best and the colorful spectacle that surrounds it.
Changes in U.S. demographics tilt in soccer’s favor, too. All those kids who are playing in the park or strolling college campuses in Barcelona and Brazil jerseys will be adults soon enough, with disposable incomes and a powerful voice in what’s cool.
The sport is wildly popular with Hispanics, who will make up 28 percent of the population by 2050, according to Census Bureau estimates. Mexico sold out its three-match exhibition tour earlier this month, and the pregame parties in New York, Chicago and Houston rivaled those outside any NFL stadium.
“I feel very, very empowered by the fact that the fastest growing demographic in the country lives and dies with soccer, and the generation of tomorrow has grown up with soccer as a big part of their lives,” Garber said. “Those two market segments — the youth and Hispanics — are going to be increasingly important to society in general over the next generation.”
It’s why MLS has been so aggressive in bringing the Mexican national team and big-name foreign clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Chivas to the United States.
It’s also why U.S. Soccer is pulling out all the stops to win the right to host the World Cup in 2018 or, more likely, 2022. The federation even got former President Bill Clinton, still a favorite overseas, to sign on as honorary chairman of the bid committee.
“The potential upside for a World Cup in the U.S. is virtually unlimited,” Gulati said. “The big game-changer ... would be what happens after, when America is fully tuned in the way England and Brazil are.”
That time, he and others are certain, is coming.
“We still have most of our growth to do,” Garber said, “and most of our opportunities are still in front of us.”