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As fans and players, Americans begining to share in sport's global appeal

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer

Each year brings increased American interest and new growth to the ranks of U.S. players and fans addicted to the excitement of football, known in the United States as soccer.

According to a survey conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturer’s Association (SGMA) in 2004, football is the only major sport that has seen its U.S. participation grow since 1987. The survey indicated that nearly 16 million Americans played football in 2004, and that it was one of only two team sports to show a net increase of players during its 17 years of data collection.

Major League Soccer (MLS), the U.S. professional men’s football league, started in 1996 with 10 teams, and has since expanded to 12. Five of those teams either are in the midst of construction or in the planning stages of building new stadiums specifically for football. April 1 marks the start of the 10th MLS season, which will culminate in an October championship match.


In Washington, football fans, dressed in European team jerseys, gather at 9 a.m. on a weekend morning to watch live international matches via satellite, shouting at the TV screens, and downing beverages at places like the Lucky Bar. The owner, Welsh-born Paul Lusty, began showing games on the pub's large-screen televisions in 1996, focusing at first on major European tournaments, and now catering to most of the world’s major football leagues.

Despite the interest in international matches, Lusty says, “I don’t think that, for the most part, the United States has fallen in love with soccer yet,” noting that most of the patrons that particular morning were not native-born Americans, but he said, “we’re getting there. … It’s slowly seeping into the American culture.”

Of his patrons, he says, “It’s a great pleasure to see all those people very vocal, cheering, and passionate, watching those games here. And you know, when you step back outside that door, you’re back in the United States and it’s a completely different atmosphere again.”

On a business trip to London in 1984, Charlie Kapp asked his hotel bellman to suggest a good match, and the recommendation led him to Arsenal against Queens Park Rangers. “I’ve been an Arsenal fan ever since,” he said.

Sitting beside him is Josh Vaughan, whose interest began at age 14 when the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994. “The first game that really hooked me was our 1-0 loss to Brazil in round 16. It was such an exciting game, and we only lost by a goal. I actually thought we did pretty well, and so from there on out I’ve been watching ever since,” he said.

Lusty expects to host large crowds when the World Cup games air in June. He remembers in 2002 when the games were held in Japan and South Korea, “We were opening up at 5:30 in the morning and we had lines at 5 a.m. in the morning right around [the street] corner to get in.”

“The interest in the World Cup is just phenomenal – like no other sport really. I mean who’s getting up at 5:30 a.m. to watch a soccer match, right?” he asks.

One Lucky Bar regular, Mark Ames, says the game is “gorgeous to watch when it’s played well.” Ames has been following football for most of his life, starting from age 12 when he played in American youth leagues. Now he can speak with impressive expertise about European player statistics and team rankings.

“When you’re a little kid, everybody plays, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “It’s so easy to play. You just get a big field and put a couple of sweaters down as goal posts. You don’t need a lot of special equipment. You just need a ball and some sneakers.”


According to data from US Youth Soccer, more than 3 million American children between the ages of 5 and 19 are registered to play on teams all over the country. The sport has shown itself to be so popular that the term “soccer mom” was coined to describe women transporting their school-age children to practices and games.

Reaching adulthood does not mean that soccer players must hang up their cleats and resign themselves only to watching the games.

Thirty-six-year-old Scott Fallon loves football so much that he plays on three adult co-ed teams in an Arlington, Virginia-based league, despite a full-time job, a canoeing hobby, and moonlight work as a guitarist.

“Nothing prepares you for playing soccer. You might think you’re in great shape, but the running you do -- the amount of stopping, sprinting, running, I mean everything -- you have to be in peak physical condition to play,” Fallon said.

He adds that intramural soccer is so popular that there are more than 40 leagues in the Washington area, and it can be hard to secure a spot on a team. “You really need to sign up the second it comes out. I mean, they fill up so fast that it’s almost impossible to get in.”

Fallon says his participation has increased his respect for the game. He also said he is impressed with the skills shown by his female teammates.

“Back in high school, my 16-year-old select team beat a [girl’s] varsity high school team 7-0. That’s definitely not the case these days. The girls can really play,” he said.

Fallon’s intramural league occasionally plays teams from Mexico, and the American side can hold its own, he says, showing that previous strong performances of the U.S. team in the World Cup were “not a fluke.”

“Soccer is catching on. Better U.S. athletes are playing and they’re better trained than they were 10 years ago,” he said.

March 25, 2006


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Updated: July 2009