Friday, May 6, 2011

The American game continues to grow

Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney writes of the growth of the game in the United States.

Something Landon Donovan said in a February interview got me to thinking about what effect the U.S. team's performance in the 2010 World Cup might have on MLS.

Despite strong World Cup TV ratings, MLS numbers haven’t changed. Yet the league keeps adding teams in large markets, building stadiums, and inching toward a foothold in a country mostly indifferent if not disdainful to its professional soccer league. And, it seems, despite the development of more programs to steer young elite players away from college soccer, the quality of those college players is improving. Despite a brand of soccer inferior to many alternatives available on television, there’s more media coverage than ever before.

The influx of players from college programs at schools like Akron, Michigan, California, Oregon State and other schools not as renowned as their counterparts such as Indiana, Wake Forest and Maryland is certainly the major factor, as is the experience many of those players gain from U.S. Soccer’s developmental programs and youth national teams.

Yet a trickle-down effect from the U.S. team’s performances at major competitions has also played a role and not just on the field, but in the stands. Gone are the days when most MLS crowds were either distracted or stoic; in many cities, not just the recent expansion hotshots, more people are a lot more into it. Instead of a few dozen colorful, rowdy whackos sprinkled amongst the moderately interested, fans in the hundreds or even the thousands wear the same colors, wave the same flags, and sing the same chants.

“When I speak about the World Cup last summer, what we were able to do, I hear people say, ‘Well then how come MLS attendance didn’t go up after the World Cup?’” said Donovan. “The reality is that you may gain a few fans in the short-term, but in the long-term what we did is inspired a lot of young kids who one day may choose soccer instead of volleyball or basketball or football, because they want to be the next Clint Dempsey or the next Tim Howard. We probably also inspired some kids who never kicked a soccer ball who think they could be the next Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley.

“Over the course of time, that’s how you build a fan base, that’s how you develop maybe one or two world-class players from all these kids who are playing soccer. You develop a lot more coaches, you develop a lot more people who are just passionate about the game, and they pass that down to their kids. It’s a cycle of passion for our sport that just builds, and the test will be in 20, 30, or 40 years from now.

“It’s a credit to how far we’ve come. It’s a credit to the coaching and a credit to the system, for sure.”

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