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From across the pond: The scale of American soccer

For so long the projections of the potential of American soccer have been lauded by pundits and predictors.

Some of these same fallacies predicted that China and India, based on population, would be world-beaters in a matter of decades.

Soccer, in the overcrowded sports nation of the United States, was heralded as the sport of the future in the 1970s, then the 1980s and in each decade afterwards.

However, there were key elements missing with every surge of the sport’s popularity.

Foremost were finances which drives the modern professional game. A distant second was the fabric of the game that was abundant at the grass roots with the greatest participation numbers at the youth level.

For all the numbers it never made the transition to adults and a single-minded following of this sport. Until now.

'Soccer moms' 

It seemed ludicrous to ignore the 'soccer moms' that became household names in their dedication and interest in the sport.

But that is exactly what Major League Soccer has more or less chosen to do.

While not abandoning the maternal connection, MLS has opted to embrace the true die-hard supporters, the one-time misfits of the American sporting landscape.

What was once a niche sport, attracting those that cycled to work, listened to grunge rock and drank micro-brewed beer, is now populated with young adults (age 24 – 34) whose daily (even hourly) pre-occupation is with their national and or pro club team.

These are now the minions who fill the stadiums in Portland, Seattle, Montreal and Philadelphia – the four newest Major League Soccer clubs. They are also the ones re-energizing the newly constructed soccer specific stadiums in Kansas City and Houston.

Still, the hardest to understand for the unlearned, is that the United States has not neared its potential in absorbing the fabric of soccer.

Although new soccer specific facilities have been built in 10 MLS cities since 2000, there are several others that have been refurbished and still more in the planning stages.

The Pele factor

Unlike European and Latin American cities that have grown and developed with the world game over the decades, American cities have had an intermittent history with soccer.

While professional soccer has been played in the north eastern towns like New York, Philadelphia and Boston since the turn of the century, the professional game did not evolve with the western expansion until the advent of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) and the explosion of 'the Pele era'.

The boom of the 1970’s sprouted franchises in Memphis, Tulsa, Rochester, San Jose, Portland and Seattle where there was no traditional foothold of professional gridiron football or baseball.

Many of those locations were not prepared for the large crowds for a sport played by 'foreigners'.

Their media was clueless and the passion exhibited at the matches by 'immigrants' was shocking to many observers. The shockwaves were magnified 10-fold when Pele arrived at the New York Cosmos in 1975.

Prior to the Brazilian’s multi-million dollar contract, pro baseball had no millionaires. Prior to Pele, the soccer never sold out a venue. Prior to Pele, no teams needed personal security and private jets.

Shock 

That all changed. So when Jacksonville, the largest land area city in America, hosted Scotland v USA on Saturday there was that shock again.

The Florida city that had not had a professional club in the top flight since 1982, sold out its local stadium (ticket sales were capped to 40,000 for security measures).

Jacksonville United, currently the cities highest level soccer club, plays in the NPSL – a fourth division amateur league.

What is unique about this situation is that unlike England, Italy, Spain or Germany, not every big city in America has a professional soccer team. But they could – and there is the potential – both good and bad.

By sheer population the USA could have 50 cities that would have the infrastructure to support a top-flight professional soccer club.

When FIFA is suggesting that top leagues pare their divisions to 18 or 20, this leaves many untapped markets in America.

MLS has used this to their advantage in selecting only the most exuberant and dynamic areas to expand its league. The stakes are high and the costs are ever-growing to become the 20th team in MLS.

Rapid expansion

Part of the demise of the old NASL was its all too rapid expansion as the sport grew in popularity.

Smaller markets could not keep up with the expenses that the Cosmos had at their disposal.

Unlikely places for expansion were Hartford, Tampa and Las Vegas that had no other professional sports teams.

In 1975 the Tampa Bay Rowdies were to become the first of the big sports in that city, which has since been joined by NFL football, NHL hockey and Major League Baseball.

The City of Jacksonville expected perhaps 15 or even 20 thousand on a good day to watch soccer. After all, they only drew 17,259 spectators when the USA played Germany here in 1999.

And in days of old, a good portion of those would have been ex-patriots coming to see their former national team play.

They were mistaken. Over 2,500 Americans turned up for the public training session the day before the match. There the Mayor of Jacksonville was presented a USA jersey by manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

Still, the day of the game, the traffic jams loomed as over 44,000 fans gridlocked the streets.

Messiah 

After the 5:1 victory, thousands remained in the parking lots celebrating what seemed the second coming of the messiah.

Waiting in the wings for MLS expansion are large metropolitan fields in Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas to name but a few.

The New York area also wants a second club with the Cosmos very much in the discussion (although they do not currently have any professional team).

Large cities outside of the USA have multiple professional clubs in the same league. Only the city of Los Angeles that has more than one team in Major League Soccer (Galaxy and Chivas USA).

The 67, 619 in attendance for USA's 2-1 defeat to Brazil on Wednesday drew in a record crowd for the DC area .

They played in a city (near Baltimore) that has no soccer club in the top three divisions of American soccer. Yet they could … one day. That is the potential.

By Chuck Zsolnai

Chuck Zsolnai is director of International Soccer Archives. He has reported on football for more than 20 years, including coverage of seven World Cups.


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