United States Soccer: Boom or Bust?

By Claire Raymond


  • Multifaceted analysis of soccer’s struggle for popularity in the United States.
  • San Luis Obispo locals weigh in on what they know about Soccer in the community.
  • VuVox photographic montage of the Cal Poly 2009 season.

International buzz surrounded the 2010 Word Cup on Dec. 4 when FIFA announced the initial groupings of the 32 teams set to play for the biggest tournament title in soccer. The draw, which put the United States in a bracket with England, Slovenia and Algeria, highlighted an important issue in United States soccer: viewership and popularity.

Many writers, commentators and critics of the game have pointed out that South Africa 2010 may be the tipping point for the game as a domestic institution in the US.  As sports writer Chris Lane so profoundly noted in his coverage of the draw, the World Cup will “define United States soccer for the next decade in terms of popularity.”

But why are US soccer fans and critics being so prophetic at a time when much of the world is joyously preparing for the event? The answer might lie in the fact that, when viewers were asked in a recent CNN poll if they were planning on watching one or more games of tournament play, an overwhelming 68% of viewers said they were not planning on watching any games at all. To the majority of Americans soccer is a fad, moving in and out of the spotlight, but never being able to stay for long.

As an avid soccer player and fan, it is hard for me to understand why the beautiful game, one with so much international history and vibrancy is such a failure in the United States.

photo courtesy of ChinaDaily.com

Brandi Chastain celebrates after hitting the game winning penalty kick against China at the 1999 World Cup (photo courtesy of chinadaily.com)

With the exception of a niche group of fans and followers,  much of what Americans know about soccer is Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off when the women’s team won the 1999 World Cup , and hunky British footballer David Beckham being signed to the LA Galaxy for an absurd amount of money.

These  so-called “moments in soccer history” reflect the cultural values that make it so hard for soccer to get a leg-up (no pun intended) in this country. Americans, in short, don’t have the attention span or the time to actually embrace the sport. The idea that a soccer match can be played for 90 minutes or longer to a scoreless draw makes soccer instantly mundane to those who have never played.

Patrick Robertson, head coach of the Cal Poly women’s club team, notes that there is an incongruency in the sport.  “From a standard American viewpoint soccer seems pointless, random, and flimsy,” he says. If  the rest of America could see “the vibrantly creative, vividly athletic, and wildly skillful sport that all footballers see then maybe, just maybe, they could relate to its raw athleticism and precision. ” Robertson makes a good point, and one that MLS and the US Soccer Federation should listen to: soccer, as with any fledgling fad product, needs to be marketed.

In a 2007 Sports Illustrated article, Grant Wahl writes about the “Americanization of David Beckham…” or rather the “Beckhamization of America.” In his piece Wahl asks these very relevant questions: “Can one man make the U.S. public care about the Los Angeles Galaxy? About Major League Soccer? About a sport that, neither hosting the 1994 World Cup, nor harboring the greatest player ever–Pelé–could turn into the mainstream religion that it is nearly everywhere else on the planet? ”

The answer: He got the ball rolling. Beckham initiated a new breed of soccer

photo courtesy of blog.taragana.com

David Beckham shows off his new LA Galaxy jersey at a publicity event (photo courtesy of blog.taragana.com)

coverage in the United States. He was able to use his celebrity to draw record crowds, sell season tickets and most importantly fill the press box, things that the MLS , and the Galaxy in particular, was having a difficult time accomplishing.

If Beckham as a brand has been good for the catalyzation of US soccer, it’s his salary that turned the most heads. Sports fans saw a foreigner and a soccer player, of all things, drawing a salary comparable to top athletes in the NFL and MLB and they took notice. Michael Massicotte, a goalkeeper for the Cuesta College men’s team, notes that salaries are an underlying factor to the popularity of soccer in the US. “If you look at Pro Sports like basketball and football that’s where all the money is made,” he says. “Look at Lebron James and others. They’re making millions upon millions per year and the MLS has just not approached that.”

Salary may be what dissuades young people with promise  from pursuing the sport domestically. For example, the second highest paid MLS player, Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy is under a $900,000/year contract while, according to Gahl, the lowest paid player is making a measley $17,700 — or $6,482,300 less than Beckham’s.

The MLS, with the exception of Beckham, has instated a $2.4 million salary cap, yet the most talented players in the league are hardly pushing $1 million. This may have to do with the fact that soccer is an exception to the sports team franchise. While NFL, MLB, NHL, etc., operate under closed membership and ownership, the MLS is a separate business entitiy with owners of the 16 teams acting as shareholders. This disparity succeeds in ostracising soccer, presenting it as a lesser sport, and condemning it to fledgling status indefinitely.

When it really comes down to it, the popularity of soccer in the US has its roots in this country’s roots. While evidence of soccer playing can be traced back thousands of years in most European and Asian countries, the game is young in the United States. With just 91 years of history, the US Soccer Federation is a babe in it’s mother’s arms. In juxtaposition, unofficial soccer games were hosted by fueding European townships as early as the 12th Century, and the European Football Association was the first league established in 1863.

The history of the game in America is quite possibly the single most influencial  explanation why American soccer is a “hobby” and International soccer is an “identity”. Cal Poly men’s soccer coach Paul Holocher points out that, in America, “we have five major sports: soccer, baseball, basketball, football, hockey. Our top athletes and our fans are spread out amongst several sports,  whereas in Europe or South America,  soccer is the sport you grow up watching on TV, all over the media, [playing] in the street or schoolyard and dreaming about when you are young.”

Because United States soccer is coming of age in a new-media age, it is at a great advantage. Innovations in social networking, the blogosphere, and digital news media can provide platforms for soccer coverage in a more digestible form. The careening free-kicks, filthy fouls, pristine assists, and miraculous saves which give so much life to the sport are naturally made for 90 second YouTube videos, highlight reels, and blog posts. In order to see the game flourish inside US borders the game and the culture needs to be smartly marketed, monetarily backed, and socially embraced. When that happens, soccer will go from a bust to a boom. And as for South Africa 2010? We can only hope for the best.

Click on the link to view a photographic montage of highlights from the 2009 Cal Poly soccer season


2 responses to this post.

  1. I believe the most fundamental reason soccer has not caught on is understanding of the game, which leads to seeing “the vibrantly creative, vividly athletic, and wildly skillful sport that all footballers see”.

    Beckham coming is a band-aid to the league and a transient in the news or one’s mind. It does not educate people about the sport.

    But I do believe soccer will eventually flourish here. The number of youth soccer players has grown tremendously and the trend continues to rise. And aside from the kids themselves, their parents are learning and appreciating the sport.

    The infrastructure and monetary ecosystem has also improved significantly. Organizations that operate youth competitive leagues along with the clubs that participate in them have grown tremendously. And people are spending lots of money! This is nurturing new business and entrepreneurship. Not to mention soccer on the tube through cable and satellite networks (even though Americans limit themselves to EPL … hahaha). This was not the case a mere decade ago.

    But most importantly these things are educating hordes of new fans like never before.

    I don’t know how long it will take, but I do believe things will continuously get better. And until we have a vibrant self-sustaining professional league, let’s keep applying “band-aids”.

    Cheers, and keep up the good work!
    – Gary


    • Yes, I definitely agree. Soccer needs to be a part of the social infrastructure as well. For the niche group of us dedicated soccer lovers, soccer is everything, and it’s hard for us to see that most people don’t see what we see. I definitely agree that we are beginning to see some positive change, my post was not meant to be extremely negative, just highlight some reasons why soccer isn’t the bastion of american sporting prowess it could be! If you have any other comments on how to further promote the growth of the soccer culture I’d love to hear them!


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