Well, here we are again. The United States Men's National Soccer Team has been knocked out of the FIFA World Cup after a spirited effort. The media built up the team in the months before the tournament and the nation fell in love with the players for three weeks. The USMNT's four games featured a range of emotions from ecstasy to despair, but in the end, the world's "football" powers got the best of The Yanks.
And now, we are having the same conversation. Soccer is popular. It is gaining popularity. But will it actually be relevant in this country before the next World Cup?
I am here to tell you that it will be more popular. Much more popular. I guarantee it.
No, soccer is not about to compete in popularity on the same playing field as the "big four" sports, football, baseball, basketball and hockey. It may not compete with those sports for a century. But it will gain considerable ground in the next four years.
Soccer cannot be compared to the big four. Without the world's top league in North America, it is crudely unfair to tangle soccer in the same discussion as those sports.
However, soccer's baby steps in American popularity are over. For the next four years, soccer is going to take a big step. No, it will not compete with the big four (Stop. I just told you to stop comparing it to those sports. Just stop. Looking at you, Ann Coulter.), but it will enter mainstream culture.
While most Americans devoted their soccer energy to the U.S.-Belgium match Tuesday, big news came out of the Sunshine State. Orlando City SC, the MLS's 19th team, signed former FIFA World Player of the Year, Kaka. The 32-year-old starred for São Paulo, A.C. Milan and Real Madrid from 2001-2014. A Brazilian national, Kaka was recruited by Orlando S.C.'s Brazilian owner, Flavio Augusto da Silva. Central Florida also features a high concentration of Brazilian-American fans, ready to buy into Kaka and the club. For validation, Kaka was mobbed at the airport Tuesday.
Orlando City S.C. will not debut until 2015 and Kaka will be on loan at São Paulo in the meantime. However, his signing on the same day as the Belgium match is symbolic of the rising popularity of the nation's professional soccer league.
Kaka is Orlando City S.C.'s first "designated player." The designated player rule was adopted in 2007 upon David Beckham's MLS arrival, and it was amended in 2010 and 2012. In short, the rule allows each MLS team to sign up to three players (the third coming with a luxury tax) outside of the team's salary cap.
During the 2010 World Cup, the biggest names under the designated player rule were Beckham and Landon Donovan, both of whom played for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Colombian Juan Pablo Angel, then of the New York Red Bulls, was also a notable designated player, but his popularity in England as an Aston Villa forward from 2001-2007 did not mean anything to Americans.
After the 2010 World Cup, big names started to flood MLS from Europe. Within a month of the World Cup Final, former Barcelona stars Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez signed with the Red Bulls. In 2011, Robbie Keane jumped from Tottenham Hotspur to the Galaxy. In 2012, Tim Cahill left Everton for the Red Bulls.
That is right. The guy who scored this goal for Australia in this year's World Cup plays in MLS.
Most recently, in 2014, Tottenham legend Jermain Defoe joined Toronto FC and David Villa left Atlético Madrid for New York City FC, a club 80 percent owned by City Football Group, the owners of Premier League club Manchester City F.C. NYC FC, which like Orlando City S.C. will premier in 2015, is also rumored to sign all-time Chelsea F.C. leading goal-scorer, Frank Lampard. Brazil national goalkeeper Júlio César is not a designated player, but he is currently on-loan with Toronto FC.
This is not to mention the USMNT stars that play in MLS. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, arguably the two biggest names on the national team, bounced from European clubs to MLS in the past 12 months. Dempsey left Tottenham for Seattle Sounders FC and Michael Bradley moved from A.S. Roma to Toronto FC. Omar Gonzalez, DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Besler, Brad Davis, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski, all of who touched the pitch for the U.S. in the World Cup, play in MLS.
I used to hear MLS proponents say that you could go to a New York Red Bulls versus Los Angeles Galaxy game and see some of the biggest names in global soccer (for example, Beckham, Henry, Donovan, Marquez and Keane).
By next summer, a plethora of MLS's then-20 teams will feature household names. When NYC FC and Orlando City S.C. meet for the first time, there is a good chance Kaka and Lampard, two former FIFA Player of the Year finalists, and Villa, the top goal-scoring in Spanish National Team history, will be on the field at the same time. And that is not if more players are signed.
As a New Yorker, I recognize NYC FC is about to change the dynamic of soccer in my city. Currently, the Red Bulls are convenient to the point there is a soccer team in the NY/NJ area. However, NYC FC will play at Yankee Stadium, a subway ride away from Manhattan. In an American summer sporting world with baseball previously having a monopoly in New York City, NYC FC is about to become another face in town. With Villa and likely Lampard in the fold, I know I am going to make it out to a few games in 2015.
Listening to ESPN Radio 98.7 FM New York radio host Dave Rothenberg last night, he broke down the economics of soccer versus baseball. Soccer tickets are a fraction of baseball tickets, and the net time of the game creeps to about half of an American League baseball game. Going to soccer games, as friends or as a family, is bound to become part of American culture.
I am not just speaking for New York. In every city, this World Cup again contributed to showing the beauty of soccer. The timing of the games in the Western Hemisphere also helped gather more people at more convenient times. Soccer strived as a bar sport with co-workers and friends meeting up to watch the matches. Even the Germany match, with a noon ET start, showed how quick soccer matches can take place, going start to finish in under two hours.
MLS is improving in two categories: Personnel and convenience. If fans have easy access to a game, know the players and will not have to empty their wallets, anything can happen (even if the teams are spending massive dollars to get these star-studded players).
Although the heroics of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey at the 2010 World Cup gave American fans a run to remember, on paper, the Round of 16 loss left one problem: Age.
As the four years proved, Donovan's skills faded with his age (32). Fellow starters from 2010 Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Jay DeMerit all slipped into the national team backdrop north of 30. Only six 2010 players made the trip to Brazil this year: Unscathed veterans Dempsey and Tim Howard, 2010 young stars Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, a midfielder who reinvented himself as a defender in DaMarcus Beasley and backup goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
Jurgen Klinsmann was under the microscope in Brazil for taking youth over experience. It appeared he was creating an eight-year rebuilding program. This explains his reasoning for saying he did not believe the U.S. could win this year's World Cup.
The youth proved it is damn good and has a bright future ahead of it. Defenders Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson and Omar Gonzalez are all between age 25 and 28, and all were stout in Brazil. Bradley, Altidore, Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi are all between 24 and 27, and still have the prospect of 2018 in Russia in mind. The true babies of the roster, 21-year-old John Brooks, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 19-year-old Julian Green, all played huge roles in the tournament, with Brooks scoring the game-winner against Ghana, Yedlin making three energetic appearances and Green scoring the only goal versus Belgium.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is just one year away, when the United States will need to generate a roster to battle the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and other World Cup-level talent. The tournament will follow with a 2016 Copa America Centenario played in the United States for the first time, featuring 10 CONMEBOL nations (South America) and six CONCACAF nations (U.S. and Mexico are already definites). A 2017 Gold Cup and a potential 2017 Confederations Cup appearance in Russia are also in tow. This all goes along with 2018 World Cup qualifying.
In other words, there is not much excuse for not following the USMNT the next four years. Unlike in past decades, all of these games are television. The U.S. will play a few dozen games as a national team the next few years in friendlies. Of course, many of the games will be played in American soccer hubs such as Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Columbus and Dallas.
On a separate note, the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup is one year away. Fueled by the heroics of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan in Germany in 2011, the women's squad followed up the men's excitement in South Africa. The USWNT made its third World Cup final before falling in penalty kicks to Japan.
The 2015 Women's World Cup will take place across Canada, which from a favorable time-zone perspective is the same as having it in the United States. The tournament should bring more excitement to the sport in the United States, particularly with the convenience to make the trip north of the border.
The stars are aligning for soccer on the national team stage to stay relevant for the next four years. Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are going to be challenged in the next four years. Anyone who enjoyed watching the young stars perform at this year's World Cup should be intrigued to follow their growth en route to Russia.
Ask a college male to name the starting 11 of any top European club. Many can spit names back in your face. There is no way around it. This knowledge is the result of EA Sports' FIFA video games series being the game of choice in college dorms.
Along the way, slowly but surely, Americans, mainly millennials, are transitioning this knowledge to television screens. Thanks to coverage from ESPN and Fox Sports, access to European soccer was very common in the past four-year cycle.
In 2013, NBC Sports took soccer to the next level, signing an exclusive three-year, $250 million contract with the Premier League. In its inaugural 2013-14 season, NBC Universal's plan called for 380 matches to be aired across all platforms and devices in the U.S., with 20 games going on NBC.
While NBC dabbles with England's top flight, Fox battles back virtually everywhere else. Fox will take over World Cup broadcasting rights in 2018, and the network stands behind its main broadcaster, who started in 2013, Gus Johnson.
Johnson, known to Americans for his high-energy broadcasting in college basketball, college football, the NBA and the NFL, is being primed to bring that energy to the World Cup. The Gus Johnson experiment has seen him call a series of notable UEFA Champions League matches including the 2014 final between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.
Unlike the last cycle, in the post-World Cup hangover, Americans who feel the soccer bite can fulfill their desires with some of biggest names of the tournament. Come mid-August, when the Premier League season begins, fans will be able to watch on their couches during weekends every week. That is not to mention the mid-week Champions League mega-matches called by Gus.
By the way, this 2010 parody is my favorite video on the Internet (and I want to believe it is what inspired Gus to call soccer):
What a cameo from Bill Raftery. The actual play featured some Gonzaga magic from Adam Morrison:
Along with the legendary European teams and star players American fans can watch week-in, week-out, American soccer stars are getting their foot in the door with the top teams. Julian Green is a rising teenager not just for any German team but for powerhouse Bayern Munich. German-Americans Fabian Johnson, John Brooks and Timothy Chandler also play for Bundesliga clubs. (By the way, stop the arguments about these guys not being Americans. All of their fathers served in our military. Are their kids not American?). Meanwhile, Howard, Guzan, Cameron and Altidore all play for Premier League teams in England. Howard's Everton finished fifth in the Premier League in 2013-14.
Americans will respond to all three of these categories. When I say Americans, I am talking percentages. Middle-aged and older people tend to be more conservative. A 50-year-old may watch the third round of an average golf tournament for four hours on CBS on a Saturday, even if Manchester United is playing Chelsea on NBC. But a 25-year-old is going to watch the Premier League match. That same 25-year-old may now head to a soccer stadium to watch the biggest names in U.S. soccer and European soccer in the 2000s, battle in MLS.
No one is saying the switch will be flipped to make soccer America's new pastime (does that make sense?). However, soccer will get more respect in the next four years.
Grumpy old people will tell you soccer is just going to crawl back into a hole for the next four years. Matter-of-fact people will tell you it will take baby steps again.
I am telling you it will stop walking and it will start to jog. It might not be time to run yet, but soccer is making up ground in the United States.
Oh, and by the way, soccer's growth in the land of the free, that is bad news for the current soccer superpowers. The crop of players and fans is budding.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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