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Many Americans root for favorite international team

Before the game started, the bar was filled to capacity, with 350 people.  Fans wearing team jerseys, flags, even face paint cheered loudly.  The patrons were mostly American, and their enthusiasm was telling of soccer’s growing popularity in America.

The world’s most popular sport, commonly referred to as “soccer” in America and “football” everywhere else, is gaining a mass following in the United States. It is already the fourth-most-watched sport in America.

Summers Restaurant was voted the best soccer bar in the United States in 2002 by the U.S. Soccer Federation.  Manager Joe Javidara has been showing soccer matches there since 1984, when Summers was the only bar showing international football in the Washington area.  “We started with five TVs and now we have 60,” said Javidara.

The popularity of soccer has grown especially among women since the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup in 1991 and in 1999.  In the United States, 35 percent of soccer players are women, one of the highest percentages of female participation in soccer in the world. Female participation in high school soccer has risen by more than 177 percent since 1990.

In 2002 the U.S. men’s soccer team advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in recent history.  Major League Soccer (MLS), the United States’ professional soccer league, has expanded from 10 to 14 teams. More then 33 million fans have attended a regular-season MLS game.  Soccer is gaining a committed fan base in the United States.

At Summers Restaurant, one patron, Rich Large, who wore a German team jersey, talked about playing soccer as a kid in the late 1970s in Washington state. “We played with baseball shoes and volleyballs; once we played on a field of volcanic pumice -- if you fell, it shredded your skin. But we still played!” Now soccer equipment is readily available, and soccer fields are a familiar feature in the American landscape.

Jaime Salegio said he was rooting for Spain because he is Hispanic and from El Salvador.  “Soccer in America is improving in quality of play,” Salegio said. “Before, Mexico won against the United States by scores as high as 6-0. Now, in the last games, America won.”

Salegio has high hopes for the U.S. team: “I think in six years the U.S. may make it to the semifinals or the finals” of the World Cup.  The U.S. team reached the semifinals only once before, in the first World Cup in 1930.

Sarah Davis was dressed in red and yellow, with her face painted the colors of the Spanish flag.  She said she roots for the Spanish team because they have “style and flair.” Like many Americans, she got into soccer through playing. “I play it recreationally. I’ve played organized soccer through college -- I was central midfielder,” she said.  Davis believes soccer will continue to rise in popularity.  “Here you hear people speaking German, speaking Spanish, it’s international.  Soccer is on the up-rise -- we are catching up with the rest of the world. It’s starting to get easier to find places to watch the game.”

Broadcasting soccer from all over the world results in interesting game times in the United States.  “During the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup games, we showed every single game live, at 2:30 a.m., 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. … We had 300 people,” Javidara said.

The odd timing for most international games makes for a busy schedule for places that show international games.  Starting in September, “the English games may start at 7 a.m.,” Javidara said. “For, say, Liverpool and Manchester United there will be 150 people; we have a British breakfast ready for them.  Then we go to an Italian game, which is at 11 a.m., then college [American] football starts at 12 noon and we stick with college football all the way to 12 or 1 a.m.; in a day we go through 2,500 people!”

July 9, 2008


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Updated: July 2009