Soccer might be the most popular sport in the world, but for decades, Americans have managed to resist its charm. Their attention has been focused, of course, on the big three American sports: baseball, football and basketball. And while soccer is rapidly gaining popularity among younger Americans, the older generation remains detached from the game, even when the rest of the world is glued to TV screens watching the 2006 World Cup matches. Now, with the luckless U.S. World Cup team booted out of this year's competition, soccer's uphill road to become an American sport seems steeper than ever.
It's not as though soccer is a stranger to American shores. The U.S. national soccer team played in the first World Cup in 1930. But from the start, the game had an image for many Americans as an immigrant sport. Still soccer began to attract more attention in the United States after the 1974 World Cup.
The following year, the country got its first professional soccer teams, with the launch of the North American Soccer League. The New York Cosmos became the league's flagship franchise when it acquired a stellar roster of players from 16 different countries, including the Brazilian soccer legend, Pele, the high-scoring Italian great, Georgio Chinagalia, and German superstar Franz Beckenbauer. By 1977, attendance at American soccer games had grown to a record 62,000.
Peppe Pinton, a veteran soccer player and the executive director of the Cosmos soccer camps, likes to recall those golden days when American fans packed the stadiums to watch some of the world's best soccer players - most of them playing on the same team. "Americans are used to watching winners," Pinton says. "Americans are used to watching superstars, great players in all sports, and they are not settling for inferiority. The Cosmos team was not successful in the early years, but it was successful when those players came here."
People lined up to get into the stadium like they would line up to get into a popular restaurant, Pinton says. "People attracted people. And the Cosmos made this happen all over the U.S," he says. "It drew record crowds in Seattle, in Miami, in Tampa, Boston, in Chicago and then they went all over the world. They went even into China when nobody was reaching to China those years."
But for 40 years, the U.S. was unable to qualify for World Cup games because most of the players on its soccer teams were not American citizens. Finally, in 1990, with enough home-grown or naturalized players on its rosters, the U.S. was able to field a World Cup team.
Peppe Pinton says the American victory in the first women's World Cup Championship in 1991 paved the way to a record attendance by American soccer fans when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup games. "When the World Cup was here in 1994," he recalls, "every single stadium was packed. So you see, Americans love events, number one. They do not like boredom and they love winners. So tomorrow, if I could assemble again the Cosmos, with Ronaldo, Raul, Zaidan, and I play at the Giant stadium any international team, I would pull 70,000 people to the Giants Stadium."
But the average U.S. soccer team today is NOT packed with superstars, and despite the growing interest American young people have shown in playing the game, pro soccer has simply not caught fire with a sports-obsessed American public. Even though the U.S. has qualified for the World Cup five times in a row since 1990 -- and even reached the quarterfinals in 2002 -- the poor performance by the U.S. team in Germany this year could set back efforts to boost the image and appeal of American soccer.
Peppe Pinton has a few ideas about how to make soccer a big-time sport in the United States. "It will take a stronger league," he says, "one that can play all year round. And we need to import stronger coaches. They are the teachers of the game, not people that are here just for the money, but because they understand that the job has to be done. And there has got to be a total organizational structure that every single [soccer] entity should work together. It has got to be a strong unification among the organizations and hopefully they will bring more international stars to [attract] the young Americans, and attract the fans to stadiums."
Peppe Pinton, like other American soccer advocates, points out that things are looking up. Soccer is already the fastest growing sport in the United States, and some experts predict it could rival American football, basketball, and baseball in... maybe… 25 years?
In the meantime, soccer fans in this nation of immigrants don't need to feel too disappointed by the U.S. team's loss in the 2006 World Cup. They can vent their passions as expatriates, cheering on virtually every other World Cup team still playing in Germany this year!