A few years ago I was in a press box at the start of a high school soccer game. There was a coach standing behind me, scouting the game.
I’m reconstructing this from memory, so forgive me if I fill in the names and numbers, but this is something like what I remember him mumbling under his breath in the first minute of the game:
“Push the ball down the sides ... 4-4-2 ... they’re looking for No. 16.”
And with that, he turned and left the press box, his scouting job completed. I spent the next 79 minutes looking out on the field, trying to recognize what he saw in an instant.
I came late to soccer. I’ve read books, studied websites and watched YouTube instructional videos. After two decades of covering high school soccer I have a half-decent understanding of the sport, but I still lag behind those of you who grew up with it.
I’m more of a soccer fan than I could have imagined two decades ago. I don’t always catch on to the strategy and detail that lifelong soccer people see out on the field, but I’m hooked on the World Cup nonetheless.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the Uruguay/Portugal game on Saturday. The smaller the country, the more the intrigue at the World Cup. Who couldn’t get wrapped up in the penalty kick tiebreakers that decided Sunday’s games.
Like many average Americans, I love the spectacle of the World Cup — countries from all corners of the earth on the world stage, yearning to win the ultimate in sports trophies. But if you’re interested in seeing soccer grow in the United States, here’s the question:
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Will I be interested in watching more MLS games once the World Cup has ended?
Will you be interested in watching more MLS games once the World Cup has ended?
I’m not trying to sell you on Major League Soccer. What I’m saying is, if you believe soccer is ready to become a top-tier sport in this country, that’s the test. It won’t work if the air goes out of the balloon once the World Cup is over.
Europe has the best soccer on the planet, and the core audience will get up on Saturday mornings to watch the English Premier League or the Bundesliga. But if you want to get garden-variety American fans on board, you need people following home-grown soccer.
The MLS has been smart about growing its league. It has 23 teams and three more are on the way. They’ve targeted soccer-friendly markets or regions that are under-served by major-league sports, but seem ready to expand beyond that with the upcoming addition of Cincinnati and Nashville. Atlanta is averaging more than 50,000 per game.
I’ve been to a handful of MLS games, but I haven’t watched a lot of it on TV. Neither have most of you. The national TV ratings are rather small. That’s where the sport in America is lacking — getting the average fan sitting on their couch at home to tune in.
Soccer is growing in this country. It’s not the boom that some keep hoping for. It’s not going to sweep across the country overnight. But it makes strides a little bit here and a little bit there.
Somewhere down the road, soccer will be a big thing in America. It’s just a matter of how soon we get there. In the meantime, I’ll look for the next Red Bulls game on TV and see if I can’t figure out their formation.