It might not be the case that soccer will dwarf football, basketball, or baseball in the near future. But the moment when the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team garners more attention than Tim Tebow on SportsCenter has arrived.
The United States trails only host nation Brazil in the number of requests for the worldwide ticket lottery for the 2014 World Cup. NBC already broadcasts English Premier League games, having signed a $250 million contract with the EPL this past spring. Even sales of Electronic Arts’ “FIFA 13” nearly matched that of the company’s “Madden NFL 13.”
I recently talked to Columbia economics professor and head of the U.S. Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati about the growth of soccer in the U.S. He cited attendance at Major League Soccer games (over 18,000 people a game, on average), all-time high ratings for the national team qualifying matches, and greater attention being given to American players—both in the media and by European clubs—as positives. The next step, then, is greater interest in MLS: America’s best professional soccer league, which was formed in 1996.
It’s no secret that MLS lags behind the EPL, Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga (to name only a few of the world’s top soccer leagues). Still, MLS continues to expand not only geographically—there will be 21 professional franchises by 2015, including a new club in Orlando—but also in the consciousness of the average American sports fan. As to soccer’s place in the American sports hierarchy, Gulati believes the goal is pretty clear.
“Be part of American society,” he said. “America is a big country with changing demographics. A meaningful place in the American landscape has been achieved and will become more meaningful over time.”
The questions, then, become these: What is the timetable for MLS to be among the world’s elite professional soccer leagues? When do Americans believe their national league can compare internationally? And, perhaps more importantly, when will MLS receive more praise and attention from soccer’s most respected international figures?
Consider that Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, writes in his soon-to-be-released autobiography that David Beckham made a mistake leaving European soccer for the LA Galaxy of MLS. The implication, of course, was that MLS couldn’t stack up to the competition of any of Europe’s top leagues. At this point, Ferguson is correct in that assessment. But when will that change? Gulati pointed out that it’s not exactly fair to compare the EPL (which itself isn’t too old, but whose member teams are) to the relatively younger MLS.
“To think that the MLS, when David [Beckham] came, which would have been 10 or 11 years into the league, would be where the Premier League is—would be asking a lot,” Gulati said. “But 17 years in, we are in pretty good shape.”
On the international level, Gulati points to the national team’s 4-3 win over Bosnia this summer as a major turning point.
“You get a World Cup opponent who wins their group, and we’re playing away from home. We’re down 2-0. We tie the game 2-2 and in the second half, instead of sitting back, we’re going for a win,” he said. “How many teams in that circumstance are going for a win? So that’s the change in attitude and mentality.”
It should also be noted that the U.S. National Team scored more goals than ever before in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Its record during qualifying was also its best ever. And this summer, the U.S. managed to edge the mighty German national team in an international friendly. Granted, Germany played without many of its top players, but the U.S. dominated much of the action.
The U.S. reached the knockout stage in the 2010 World Cup, one year after nearly winning the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. In that particular tournament, the United States beat Spain, then rode the longest international unbeaten streak in the history of the sport, before falling 3-2 to Brazil in the finals.
So, while the U.S. still lacks the quality and depth of most dominant international teams, the gap between the U.S. and nations like Brazil has shrunk—perhaps not significantly, but at least to some extent. While reaching the finals of next summer’s World Cup appears unlikely, getting to the knockout stage is undoubtedly the minimum expectation.
Daniel Radov is a Columbia College first-year. Free Advice runs biweekly.