Now that the 2014 World Cup has come to an end, I think this is the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the identity and growth of the sport of soccer in this country. Soccer has been around in this country for a long time, and die hard supporters love to go on about how the United States finished 3rd place in the very first World Cup in Uruguay, but most of us really know that the rising popularity of the sport really didn't occur until the late 70s or so and even then it was really in its infancy. Soccer finally reached adolescence around the time Major League Soccer was founded and the 1994 World Cup, which the United States hosted. The '94 World Cup was a huge turning point for soccer in this country and opened up (possibly forcibly) the passion of the sport. Since then, growth has steadily taken off. There have been a few stumbles along the way, but everyone and everything hits stumbles as it grows up.
Facing the Competition and Growth of the Fan
To me, and most soccer fans in this country, the measurement of the success of soccer is always against the other major sports in this country: football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. We stick up for soccer and are incredibly defensive and quick to drop stats on people's butts; statistics ranging from the vagueness of "it's the most popular sport in the world" to "MLS ranked 3rd in attendance per game last year in this country".
The fact that it is compared this way at all seems silly. Why do people "hate soccer" in a way unlike anything else. I am not a fan of a lot of sports - mostly because I haven't tried them, know the rules, and other perfectly valid reasons, but I don't hate them in the way that some people "hate soccer". Even with all of the Ann Coulter types out there, a lot more people seem to be having a change of heart over the sport (note: Ann Coulter is not a real person). People are learning that just because football season is over, doesn't mean futbol season is over and they're okay with it.
Over time we've seen fan differentiation. There are the hardcore, die-hard, bleed the team's colors kinds of fans out there that can go head-to-head with any Cheese-head in Green Bay that painted his body green and yellow and forgot that it was 12 degrees out. There are also the hipster types that scoff at which European club or league you happen to follow irrespective of how closely. There's also the rise of the casual fan. The increased media attention and TV deals have allowed people to follow MLS and soccer in general at their own pace which is a fantastic thing. A good friend of mine from college, Jessy Nations, wrote an article titled the "Burden of the American Soccer Fan", but the article is really about casual fans and how World Cup fever will soon dissipate, but that they're left with the option to keep the party going by picking an MLS side (sorry to spoil it, but the article is a good read). Casual fans or not, we know that the league is growing because:
Our Stars are coming back
I've been telling people for years that we'll know that MLS is in a good position when the best American talent has decided to stay in the US. We've always had Landon Donovan around, and I'm all for getting the David Beckham's and Thierry Henry's in the league (though it would be nice if one of them could please have a visit with Dominic Kinnear and Chris Canetti), but it is the Clint Dempsey's, Omar Gonzalez's, and Michael Bradley's in this league that really show its strength. Why? Besides the obvious answer of having great talent in the league, retaining stars isn't easy in this league and that reason is mostly spelled with dollar signs. Right now, the money just isn't enough to convince everyone to stay. Getting these great players back one at a time like this is having a positive impact. It is convincing players from abroad and at home that the league is becoming more competitive with other soccer leagues out there in the world.
What's the Ceiling on MLS/US Soccer?
There are a lot of obstacles that stand in the way of the success of MLS and US Soccer: cap space, ownership group(s), FIFA, TV-deals, scheduling, value versus other programming, and many other things. Still, the US has grown up very quickly in a short time and a lot has changed since that '94 World Cup. We've added teams, lost teams, saying DP became less funny, and beaten and lost to some of the World's best clubs in All-Star games and other exhibition matches.
I honestly couldn't tell you how high or low the potential for soccer in the states is. Will it become bigger than the next highest attended sport per game (baseball)? It could happen. Things could also turn for the worse and attendance and viewing could decrease. Right now, it is a great time to be a US soccer fan though. Major League Soccer is expanding (pick a team people and support, support, support them) and expectations for the national team are as high as ever. What will the league look like by the next World Cup? Most importantly though, how many MLS Cups will the Houston Dynamo have won by then?