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Once on the sidelines, soccer is now a popular sport in the U.S.

By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- The killing goal came in the 80th minute when Mehdi Mahdavikia, taking advantage of a defensive lapse, drove the ball deep into the corner of the net, making the score 2-0. Brian McBride answered in the 87th minute to bring his team to within a goal, but the scoring ended there, and on that day in France in 1998, the Iranian national team celebrated an upset win over a strong American side in the first match between the two countries since the Iranian revolution in 1979.

For both sides it had been more than simply another soccer match. The Iranian team had prepared well and they, as well as the Iranian public, took great satisfaction from the win. Americans -- and this was the remarkable part -- also noticed the outcome of the match. They cared not so much because the loss had been to Iran, though there might have been a bit of that, too. No, the true departure over past years came from the fact that Americans had noticed a soccer match at all.

Seas of ink and tons of paper have been expended around the world for years commenting on the fact that, though soccer is unquestionably the most popular sport in the world, Americans have for decades resisted its charms and paid it almost no heed. This neglect has usually extended even to their own national team. The consensus of these commentaries has been that Americans, their attention taken up by the big three of baseball, American football, and basketball, which dominate, respectively, summer, fall and winter, simply have no time or energy left for another major sport. Some writers have also detected a certain provincialism in the American sports community that did not allow it to warm to a sport imported from overseas. Many of the writers of these articles wondered if the United States would ever join the rest of the world regarding soccer.

Wonder no longer. Soccer in the United States is booming. Though the older generation of Americans may remain clueless about this king of sports, younger Americans are flocking to it in numbers unimaginable only a few years ago. On schoolyards across the country, football fields and baseball diamonds now do double duty as soccer fields, or have been converted to soccer altogether. Youth soccer leagues that draw from the elementary and secondary schools around the country attracted more than three and a half million kids this year -- more than Little League baseball -- as well as more than a million adults in coaching, administrative, and other volunteer positions. At the lowest levels of play skills are rudimentary and both teams, with little sense of position, follow the ball up and down the field like a swarm of bees. The older kids, though, already show considerable promise for the future.

This explosion of interest started a few years ago, quietly at first, then with increasing momentum. American international teams have begun to reap the benefit. As the first generation of players who have participated in the soccer craze percolate up through the various levels of play, the under-17 and under-19 teams have met with increasing success, becoming international powers. The U.S. national team, a consistent winner, is a young one, with stars such as Landon Donovan, and DeMarcus Beasly, both only 21 years old.

The road to national prominence has been as long as it has been bumpy. Most Americans would be surprised to know that soccer first came to the United States in the mid-19th century, imported by British and Irish immigrants, and enjoyed immediate popularity. An international competition was held in the U.S. in 1885. The United States became an early member of FIFA in 1913. An American team participated in the first world cup in 1930.

In so many ways soccer seemed to have established itself as one of the preeminent sports in the United States almost 100 years ago, and the country was an international force into the first third of the 20th century. So, what happened?

Part of the problem was that even as soccer's popularity grew within some segments of the population, it retained its image as an immigrant's sport, something imported, but not entirely within the mainstream. While cricket and rounders had become thoroughly Americanized into baseball, and rugby evolved into American football, soccer stubbornly resisted assimilation.

Even as the U.S. entered the first World Cup in 1930, soccer had lost much of its momentum as a popular sport, having always trailed baseball. Soccer began losing position to football and basketball. Its image as a sport dominated by immigrants also proved a hindrance in the years after World War I, when new waves of immigration and the aftermath of World War I, including the Russian Revolution, caused a popular backlash in the United States against things foreign. Soccer hit bottom and stayed there.

Beginning in the late 1960s a few lone enthusiasts predicted from time to time an imminent boom in the sport's popularity. Each time they were proved wrong. Attempts to establish more vigorous school programs or professional soccer leagues fizzled like damp Fourth of July fireworks.

Then soccer began to attract a little more attention in the U.S. In the wake of increased interest in the World Cup in 1974, the professional North American Soccer League was inaugurated in 1975. The League's masterstroke was to lure the great Brazilian player Pele out of retirement. In the words of Phil Woosman, a former league commissioner, "Pele changed the face of soccer in the United States. He filled the major stadiums and was responsible for the soccer boom."

The boom seemed within a few years to have become a bust. The league folded, and Pele returned to retirement. Other leagues were born and died. Sportswriters, at least those who cared to write about soccer, lamented its continued obscurity.

Under the surface, however, things had begun to change. Maybe soccer fans, always wishing for and occasionally seeing the chimera of a boom, were looking in the wrong place. The boom didn't come at the professional or adult level, but from within the school sports system. Maybe Pele really had made a difference. The boom would not be a single surge of interest, but would come as a wave of little "boomlets," each one boosting soccer's popularity up another notch. Though Pele's league folded, he may have had an important influence on the increase in the game's popularity in grade schools and universities during the 1970s and 80s.

A new professional league met with success, but it was the kids who answered soccer's call. Then the kids began to grow up. In 1990 the United States qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Returning to old patterns, many of the team's members were recent immigrants, but immigrants were greeted with perhaps more tolerance in 1990 than they had been earlier in the century. Immigrants currently constitute about ten percent of the U.S. population, and as they came into the American mainstream they were able, this time, to bring soccer into the mainstream with them.

As Len Oliver, a writer on soccer in the United States has said, "Immigrants taught us how to talk about soccer, the nuances, the terminology, and soccer history, lore and colorful characters."

International success, though a little uneven, gained increased attention for the sport. The U.S. Women's team won the first FIFA Women's World Cup Championship in 1991. In 1994, the U.S. for the first time played host to the World Cup, which enjoyed its highest fan attendance in history. Perhaps inspired by the friendly crowds, the American team advanced beyond the first round for the first time since 1930.

Now things began to roll. Participation among American youth jumped dramatically. In 1996, the American women won the first Olympic soccer gold medal, and topped themselves by winning the World Cup in 1999. Soccer mania seemed to sweep up every little girl in the country, each one dreaming of becoming the next Mia Hamm, the women's foremost star. The men stuttered, losing to Iran in 1998, and finishing last in the World Cup that year. But they came back solidly in international competition and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002, outplaying the powerhouse Germans, according to most analysts, before losing by a single goal.

The real story, though, may not lie in the international success of recent American teams. It comes from the fact that so many Americans now see soccer as their sport. The first two stadiums in the country built expressly for soccer -- both at universities -- have been built in the last four years. Though recent immigrants still play a role, the great majority of players on the national teams are native-born. More than 98 percent of kids participating in youth leagues were born in the U.S. Newly naturalized Americans still find an important place in the sport, but their real success lies in bringing an increasingly large part of the American sports community with them.

Soccer participation has not yet translated into large public audiences. Though growing, soccer crowds remain modest and the indoor and outdoor professional leagues are not yet robust. But, as with the players themselves, the spectators are young and enthusiastic, and their numbers growing. Buoyed by international success and growing youth participation, the future of American soccer looks bright.

July 11, 2003


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