Soccer in the United States


This week, the United States national soccer team beat the top-ranked team from Spain 2-0 in the Confederations Cup.  To call this an upset would be a understatement.  The United States was lucky to even make the semifinals of the tournament, getting in through a three-team tiebreaker, while Spain had won 15 straight matches and had a 35 game unbeaten streak.

Like many other sports fans, I wasn’t able to watch this match because I was in the middle of my workday, but upon hearing that the U.S. had won, my first thought was, “if this is as big a win as it seems, how will it impact soccer in the United States?”  So I asked some of my peers through Twitter and Facebook, and these are the responses I got:

  • “No”
  • “None whatsoever”
  • “Not sure about that but should be huge for WC2010 excitement in US”
  • Ah, no, none whatsoever. BUT if they ever win a World Cup semi-final, that would be a different conversation”
  • “Judging by trending topics on twitter, nobody seems to care that it’s the US team that beat Spain, just that Spain lost. In other words: it’s business as usual for soccer in America.”
  • “Nope. Hardcore futbol supporters will continue to be there & rest will go on with their lives. Do it in the WC? Much diff story”
  • “The US was playing a game? If so then I’m thinking that that is mostly the answer to your question. :)”
  • “As the most casual of casual fans, I might decide to leave SportsCenter on when they show soccer highlights, instead of simply changing the channel. But I’m going to need a lot more convincing before I pony up the cash for tickets to an MLS game. Especially if I could be spending my money on baseball tickets instead.”
  • “doubtful, but if they follow it up with a win against brazil and then go far in the next world cup, its got a chance. the problem is that MLS doesnt have the marketing power it needs to grow the stage at the same rate the quality of play is growing.”

I feel pretty comfortable saying that despite the magnitude of this win, it has practically no effect on the status of soccer in this country.  However, if the U.S. can carry this momentum into their 2010 World Cup appearance, some believe that the attitude could then change.  As a sports business professional, you hate the idea that you have to depend on team performance to generate interest and business success, but is there anything else that MLS and the national team could do right now?  What are your thoughts?  I do not follow the sport very closely (I guess I’m part of the problem in that way), so I need to know what others think.

14 thoughts on “Soccer in the United States

  • June 25, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    The notion of a single match “changing the status” of soccer in this country is ridiculous. As a fan of MLS and the US National team, watching soccer grow in this country over the last 20 years has been amazing. I know enough, though, to realize there’s no “seminal event” that will lift the sport to the top of the US Sports consciousness. All MLS matches are televised in their local markets. The US National Team sells out stadiums. The digital cable universe shows dozens of games from around the world each week. There are millions of soccer fans in this country. Not enough are fans of MLS.

  • June 25, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Mark – You make some great points. It is a bit shortsighted to think that one match will change things, but a big enough event (like a big WC win) can still have an impact. I was trying to gauge if this win would have any of that impact.

    Soccer has grown tremendously in this country over the years, but it still takes a back seat to the big 4. MLS has done very well, but people keep waiting for soccer’s “big breakthrough” to the mainstream sports audience. Maybe that’s the actual problem – everyone is looking for that one thing, when in reality, the slow and steady growth will get them there. Maybe I need to be more patient.

  • June 25, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Overtake one of the Big 4? Considering the league has been around since 1996, and the modern national team era started in 1990, that’s a tall order. The media’s a big reason why. MLS games average 15k/game, but SportsCenter won’t show highlights. Sportswriters of the older generation don’t know how to write about it. In NY, though, Red Bull games attract more viewers than the Devils or Isles. Baby steps. The league is still here and growing. More media every day.

  • June 25, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    There have been many, many moments in US soccer history for it to make an impact on the nation. Going as far back as Pele, through the World Cup in the US, the women’s win and so on. You look at any open field on any Saturday and you will see hundreds on kids in shin guards and colorful jerseys. I think soccer is successful as a sport you play but not necessarily watch on TV and lets face it, in America if its not on primetime, its a bust. Its as good as its going to get for the ball you can’t bounce or throw. Hockey has fights, Nascar has crashes, soccer has flops.

  • June 25, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    This will have little to no impact on soccer in the US. You see the same trend every time there is a big soccer victory here. Brandy Chastain tears her jersey off as the US storms to victory, hype builds and the league folds a few years later. The die-hard fan base will be there but soccer will never enter the mainstream. Even though we have one of the biggest youth programs in the world, our “stars” will never come up the ranks for soccer as long as football and basketball are in existence.

  • June 25, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Why must growth to contend with the big 4 be necessary? MLS will have 18 teams by ’11. Most will play in their own stadiums. That is success. The hostility towards the sport among many in the Sports Media is baffling. If you don’t care for it, ignore it. Don’t bash it.

  • June 25, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Mark – I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m being too critical. I do think that MLS has been a success, but there is a tendency to want to compare it to the big 4 leagues, especially since soccer is clearly the number one sport internationally. I don’t think its hostility as much as its a frame of reference.

  • June 26, 2009 at 12:21 am

    It’s hard to make such such a claim when you didn’t even see the game against Spain. I’ve covered American soccer for a good long while (nearly 15 years), including the 2002 World Cup, so I’ve seen how easy it is to get caught up in the moment.

    My advice: Follow this sport, and U.S. progress in it, a bit more closely. Especially with another World Cup less than a year away.

  • June 26, 2009 at 8:14 am

    I agree it is hard not to compare soccer to the “Big 4,” but from what I’ve read, leaders in US Soccer are very reluctant to do that. I’d agree that there isn’t one event that will propel the sport to the next level, but each event like the win over Spain is a move in the right direction. I’d argue that before we can win over Americans, we have to establish US Soccer as a reputable soccer country in the eyes of Europe and South America. If other countries don’t respect our version of the game, how can we expect skeptics in the US to do it?

    Also, when you look at how popular the sport is in terms of participation, I think what’s preventing the participation from converting into fandom is the lack of media coverage. But media coverage won’t come until they see there are die hard fans. But it’s hard to be a die hard fan when there’s little media coverage, which presents a bit of a problem.

    Either way, go USA!

  • June 26, 2009 at 9:08 am

    It’s an interesting question, but not one that is limited to soccer or to the United States. Many sports suffer from lack of ‘mainstream’ following because either a) the team doesn’t do too well or b) there are other sports that dominate the mass-media or c) the country in question doesn’t have an representative.

    F1 is a case in point. Loved by a huge worldwide fan-base, there is no US driver and no US race, so why should the media give it any attention?

    I was catching up on some podcasts the other day of Brian Berger’s great Sports Business Radio show. The segment was discussing tennis and it’s lack of visability in the USA because there isn’t currently a US male star and the games are played elsewhere. Why would an American audience follow a game in Dubai? Well others do – Federer and Nadal have worldwide fanbases, so perhaps there is a nationalistic element.

    It’s not just the US though. In the UK, soccer is almost the only sport discussed in the mass-media. That changes when either a) there is an even on UK soil – like Wimbledon, or a homegrown talent is doing well (Jenson Button in Formula 1).

    Back to soccer though. In Australia, Soccer never had the following of sports like Australian Rules Football or Rugby league. However, as the team got better, and started to compete on the world stage, the interest in the game picked up. Not with fans so much, but with impressionable kids who wanted to play the game.

    It is only when a generation of children who have been inspired by a great player or team grow up can you affect the long term interest of a game.

  • June 26, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Let’s use Australia as a point of reference. In comparison, MLS is much further along than A-League in terms of quality. Yet the A-League has much more national exposure than MLS. I feel that there in addition to the “not invented here” syndrome that blunts American soccer popularity, there’s a measure of “We don’t follow losers” that marks American pride. The US would only have soccer popularity by becoming a world power. You don’t have to be brilliant to see just how much of a bind that puts the federation. The change in national Domographics will help that problem dissipate eventually, as more Americans grow up with Soccer as an actual growing concer, and not something you take your kids to.

  • June 26, 2009 at 9:25 am

    First of all, I took a screen shot of TweetScoop just a few minutes after the US victory. The comment that it wasn’t trending on Twitter is a bit off.

    No single event will suddenly thrust soccer into the permanent mainstream. Heck, the NHL has been looking for that for years and outside of the Northeast, there really hasn’t been much growth.

    I had a business professor in college use the railroads as an example of an industry having tunnel vision and not seeing change on the way. The railroad owners didn’t see what air travel would do to their industry and as more people flew, the railroads were left with their pieces of a much smaller pie. Already soccer fans in the US have 3 (FSC, GolTV and Setanta) which shows plenty of soccer. There are plenty of soccer focused podcasts available to download. There’s an incredible amount of websites which provide news, opinion and discussion for soccer fans.

    It’ll mean a longer, slower growth rate for the sport but what is the cost to the outlets which ignore it?

  • June 26, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    It’s all about managing expectations, patience, and continuous marketing by MLS to even be considered in the conversation of the Big 4. And does it honestly have to be one event to propel the MLS? What one event thrusted either of the other Big 4 sports? Each simply continued to compete and develop year by year, decade by decade. And the MLS should do the same. As one poster mentioned, many of the MLS teams already play in their own stadium… this speaks volumes.

    The US win over Spain is one step of many for the sport in order to gain more mainstream acceptance and exposure. Even Beckham coming here should be considered a success (even if he was paid a zillion dollars). He still came.

    Would Jordan (the Wizards version of Jordan) have gone to Europe (as their league is improving on a world level) if they paid him a zillion dollars? I doubt it.

  • July 14, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    MLS is second rate to the big four and college football/college basketball. It will always be unless the competition gets better, player wages are competitive and the mainstream media actually covers the MLS and it’s “superstars” on a consistent basis. Soccer in general is huge in the United States, the same cannot be said for the entity that is Major League Soccer.

    Grassroots programs in the United States are not strong enough nor effective enough. Soccer has an advantage of worldwide opportunity that no other big 4 sport has and any player of size and strength can play soccer if you have enough technical skill.

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