Catching Up

There's Still A Gap Between U.s. And World Soccer - But It's Getting Narrower

July 19, 2009|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

When AC Milan and Chelsea clash Friday at M&T Bank Stadium, 70,000 American soccer fans - many with painted faces - will be going bonkers from the opening kick. The Inner Harbor will be filled with rabid supporters of both clubs, even though most have never seen either team play live.

A sold-out exhibition match between elite European clubs on American soil will, in many circles, be hailed as another sign that the sport is continuing to move toward mainstream acceptance in the United States.

But the truth about soccer's growth is more complicated.

Certainly, in many respects, soccer is booming in America: US Youth Soccer boasts more than 3.2 million participants annually, up from around 100,000 in 1974.

At the highest level, Team USA just played in the final of the Confederations Cup, narrowly losing to Brazil, 3-2, in the final of a tournament generally regarded as the biggest international measuring stick outside World Cup. American players such as defender Oguchi Onyewu, who played at Sherwood High in Olney in 1996 and 1997 and who signed recently with AC Milan, are now being courted by Europe's top clubs, a rare occurrence during the past 20 years.

"If you're a serious soccer player, you have ambitions to play in Europe," Onyewu said. "To get that opportunity is just really exciting. It's kind of hard to put into words."

So, why is a franchise such as D.C. United struggling to get 15,000 fans to its games? Major League Soccer, the domestic league founded in 1993, had appeared to be on the verge of profitability for the first time, but it has been a struggle this year. Although you have to factor in the recession, attendance is down 29 percent at United home games from 2008. It's a similar story around the league, with franchises in New York (-27 percent), New England (-23), Chicago (-22), Los Angeles (-24), San Jose (-31) and Dallas (-31) all seeing at least a 20 percent drop in attendance.

On the flip side, the Milan-Chelsea match sold out two weeks before the opening kick. Last fall, ESPN was pleased with its ratings for the European Championships. Is it possible that Americans are becoming passionate about world soccer while remaining somewhat indifferent to U.S. soccer?

"I think American soccer fans are now some of the most spoiled in the world," said Nick Webster, an analyst for the Fox Soccer Channel and co-host of Fox-Football Fone-In. "With all these channels and the Internet, they can see games from anywhere in the world. It's turned me into an absolute junkie. I was talking to one of my buddies back home in England and he was telling me that we can see more English Premiership games in America than he can see in England. So if you're a fan of the sport, you're like a pig in mud. By the same token, you're not getting kids inside the stadium, which is the lifeblood of the sport. So you win and lose in the same instance."

It's not fair to compare a league that is 13 years old with teams that have nearly 100 years of history, Webster said.

"In my job, you feel like you're always defending Major League Soccer," Webster said. "But ... it's made incredible strides in 13 years. It's not hemorrhaging money like it was back in the early days. It has consistency and longevity. It's here to stay."

Alexi Lalas was the first American-born player of the modern era to play for a top European club when he signed with Serie A of Italy in 1994 after his success with Team USA during the 1994 World Cup. Lalas came back to the United States and played in MLS for eight seasons and later was general manager for three franchises. He says exhibitions like the World Football Challenge can only help domestic soccer.

"The reality of the situation is, if you're going to compare and contrast MLS with the world elite, we're going to come up short," said Lalas, who will be here to work the ESPN broadcast of Chelsea-AC Milan. "We still have a long way to go. But I think when you have a match like this played in the U.S. between two top clubs, it can only help the exposure and attention for the sport. There is going to be a trickle down.

"We live, work and play in a game that is global. Kids are going to have their MLS affiliation and they're also going to have their international affiliation. I embrace that. That's wonderful. The access kids have to see soccer on a consistent basis today is so much more than it used to be. When I was growing up, it was minimal. And that is a reflection of the game's growth."

Although soccer can now be seen on a number of channels, ESPN's World Cup coverage is an example of the game's steady growth. In 2002, the network drew a total of 70.1 million viewers on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 for its broadcast, even though six matches were shown in tape-delay. In 2006, that number rose to 97.6 million, and every match was shown live from Germany.

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