In one acceptance speech, Landon Donovan summed up soccer’s status in the United States.
Shortly after the U.S. National Team won an ESPY Award for their upset win over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, Donovan took the award, stepped up to the podium and — after acknowledging all that went in to the win — closed his speech with this statement:
"We also look forward to other teams winning awards for upsetting us."
When that will happen is anyone’s guess, but most soccer fans in this country have been waiting a while for that time to come.
"In ‘94, I thought we’d be closer to being the best by 2010, but it hasn’t happened," said Carlos Vega of Canton. "It’s growing to a point where our athletes match age by age with the best, it’s just going to take a little more time."
But how long exactly?
Soccer is a relatively new sport in the US. Sure it’s been played on American soil since colonial days, when the newly arrived British brought the game with them, but it’s never gained a foothold on American culture like it has in Europe, and some think it never will.
"People talk about ‘have we turned the corner,’" said Roger Allaway, author and historian of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. "In my mind, there is no corner; it’s a curve and we keep going further around it."
And what’s at the end of that curve?
"Ideally, something similar to the situation currently in England," Allaway added. "But that’s certainly not going to happen in my lifetime."
With three major sports (football, basketball, baseball) already consuming much of the American sports fan’s time and money, soccer may always be on the outside looking in.
"It isn’t going to reach the dominant position as overseas," said Allaway, author of the Encyclopedia of American Soccer History. "It would be good if soccer were a substantial niche as opposed to the small niche it has now.
"I think there’s too much competition from other sports over here."
But that doesn’t mean soccer hasn’t tried to become mainstream.
From Pele to Beckham
During the late 1960s, the North American Soccer League was formed in the U.S. It struggled from its outset, but as the decade turned, so did the league’s popularity.
The shift was in large part due to one franchise, the New York Cosmos, who had legendary players like Brazil’s Pele and Germany’s Frank Beckenbauer on their roster. Despite Pele and Beckenbauer playing past their primes, the Cosmos averaged 40,000 fans per game, which was well over the 15,000 average attendance throughout the league.
But in 1984 the league folded, and professional soccer in the U.S. had a major setback.
"The NASL was brought down by a variety of factors," Allaway said. "They tried to build the top floor of the house when the foundation wasn’t there yet."
That foundation was built following the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., and two years later, Major League Soccer was born.
"The foundation is there more than it was," Allaway said. "MLS isn’t making paws of money, but it’s still around, which is an accomplishment."
It’s still in existence, but the MLS has yet to become a league as world-renowned as La Liga in Spain, the English Premier League or Italy’s Serie A.
"I don’t even watch the MLS and I live in this country," said Travis Dexter, an avid soccer fan who lives in Woodstock. "I’d rather watch the overseas clubs.
"Soccer is never going to grow where we watch the MLS."
That’s partly because the MLS lacks stars. Aside from Donovan, who plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy, the country’s best players are heading overseas to play with the world’s best, and when the world’s best come to the MLS, they’re normally past their prime.
Case in point: David Beckham, who at one time was considered the world’s best player and starred for Manchester United and Real Madrid. But as Beckham’s career started to go south, the Galaxy decided to try and get him to play in the MLS. He signed with Los Angeles in 2007 to the tune of a reported $250 million contract. Even with Beckham playing in the U.S., the MLS still struggled because while it had one of the world’s best, it didn’t have all of the world’s best.
"I look at places like Holland, Denmark and places that have really good feeder leagues for the big leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain, and I look at that and say that’s not a bad status to aspire to," Allaway said. "That doesn’t fly in America; we have to be the best."
According to Allaway, in order to produce the best players, the U.S. has to rethink its development program, especially when it comes to youth soccer.
"American style of play emphasizes teamwork instead of individuals," he said. "My impression of youth soccer is an awful lot of regimented drills run by adults, which tend to produce machine-like teams and not individual flair. I don’t think we’re going to produce big superstars with that system."
One way to produce superstars, and thus a better national team, is to get Hispanic and African-American athletes to play soccer. Two such athletes, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies, are making a name for themselves on the national level and promoting the game to the African-American community.
"They bring that size and speed that we need," Dexter said. "A lot of the African-American athletes are gonna grow up and play football, basketball or baseball. It’s hard to keep them interested in soccer."
More African-Americans are playing on the national team than ever before, with one (Oguchi Onyewu) playing so well that he became the first American to sign a contract to play with A.C. Milan.
"That’s a step in the right direction," Allaway said. "It’s not a leap in the right direction, but a step in the right direction is better than a step in the wrong direction."’
While increased African-American involvement has improved the sport, Allaway and Vega believe that success at a world level will ultimately lie with the Hispanic community.
"I think the Latino immigration is going to help," Allaway said. "The U.S. system isn’t really set up to take advantage of that, but I think the U.S. Soccer Federation realizes that they have to change that and they are trying to. The powers that be in American soccer are recognizing the asset the Latino population can be and are trying to change the way things are in order to take advantage of that."
Moving along the curve
As time ran out in the 2-0 win over Spain in the Confederations Cup, the goal of the U.S. becoming a soccer power was finally coming to fruition. The win advanced the U.S. to its first FIFA championship game, and for the first time in a long time, sports fans in this country were talking about soccer.
"Any time you win it’s gonna help," said Lee Couey. "If you look at any sport, the team that wins all of a sudden has all these fans that came from nowhere. That’s the first time we’ve ever had a game of that level, and to play a team of that caliber at a competitive event definitely raises eyebrows."
The thrill of victory turned to disappointment in the title game, as the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead over Brazil only to lose 3-2. Despite the loss, the soccer community grew during that game as 3.9 million people watched the game on ESPN, the most-watched non-World Cup game on the network.
"The excitement when we beat Spain and when we played Brazil, I’ve never seen anything like it," Dexter said. "I know so many people that watched the game because it was hyped by ESPN."
While the hype soon died down, the national team is poised to create a new buzz once the 2010 World Cup begins. Now, more than ever, the team has proven that it can play on the world’s stage, but whether or not that yields a title at the World Cup is anyone’s guess.
"We’ll see. It’s hard to win one," Couey said. "Only seven teams have ever won it. You look at great teams: Spain, never won a World Cup. Netherlands, never won a World Cup. And they’ve been around forever and they’ve had the best players. Unfortunately, our best players are still second-stringers in Europe.
"We’re getting better and we’ll be in contention."
One fan believes that the U.S. will never win a World Cup because the country can’t keep its best players on the roster.
"Look at (Giuseppe) Rossi, who plays for Italy but grew up in the US," Dexter said. "It’s easy to get dual citizenship these days, so people are gonna want to play for the better country with more tradition.
"We have more talent than anybody, but I don’t think we’ll ever win a World Cup."