Copa América Centenario

How soccer found its feet in the United States

The 1994 World Cup sowed the seeds for an event such as the upcoming Copa América to be able find a real audience in America

American fans watching the national team play in Kansas in May.
American fans watching the national team play in Kansas in May.AFP

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“This summer, the world’s biggest superstars are coming to the United States for the Copa America,” says star basketball player Kobe Bryant in a Fox Sports ad for the tournament, which begins Friday. “Messi, Suárez, Rodríguez, Chicharito, Sánchez…” Just a few years ago, no one in the US would have known what the NBA legend was talking about.

This year’s Copa America is the most important soccer competition to be hosted in United States since the 1994 World Cup. The oldest international tournament celebrating its centennial in the country in the Americas where there is the least interest in soccer... Or is there? The truth is that many things have changed in American soccer since 1994. The sport is on its way to becoming the fifth most popular in the United States after the well-established American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

The sport is on its way to becoming the fifth most popular in the United States after the well-established American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey

In 1994, the US national team reached the round of sixteen and one of its defense players became famous for his headers. Marcelo Balboa says soccer players had to explain what it was that they did. “Many did not know who we were,” he says over the phone from Denver, where he is working as a sports commentator. “I don’t think people got it until 2002,” he argues. That was when the national team reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup hosted in South Korea and Japan.

“The generation that saw us in that World Cup have children now and they are people who have grown up watching soccer. It’s fantastic,” Balboa says. For the first time, there is a generation of fans who not only know about soccer but also practice it in school, just like other popular sports, he explains. “There are more kids practicing soccer now than in all of history,” he says. Soccer is, for the first time, a family affair.

FIFA says more people (24.5 million) play soccer in the United States than anywhere else in the world except in China (26.1 million). In this respect, the country is even ahead of India (20.5 million), Germany (16.3 million) and Brazil (13.2 million). It also has the second-largest federation of players (4.2 million), falling only behind Germany (6.3 million). In 2010, 24.3 million people in the United States saw the World Cup final in South Africa, while 26.5 million saw the final in Brazil in 2014, making it the most-watched soccer game in the country’s history and showing that the United States is an expanding market for the sport – perhaps the only one left besides China.

In 2010, 24.3 million people in the United States saw the World Cup final in South Africa, while 26.5 million saw the final in Brazil in 2014

At a traditional barbecue party on Memorial Day, the Champions League final played on Saturday between Real Madrid and Atlético might be part of the conversation just as much as the Golden State Warriors’ chances of getting to the NBA finals. Fox broadcast the game live with lengthy pre-game and post-game coverage. Every sports bar had the Champions League game on. All sports fans in the United States knew there was an important match happening. “The Copa del Rey final was broadcast live on ESPN,” says Andy Markovits, a sports expert and professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “Five years ago none of my students knew what it was.” Just like five years ago “no one would have known who Mourinho was,” but now the coach’s transfer to Manchester United is just another item on an American sports newscast.

The Women’s Team

Major League Soccer (MLS) director of player programs Alfonso Mondelo says there are between 10 and 15 million kids playing soccer in the United States. They are the children of “young parents who also play soccer.” Today, he continues, “everyone in this country aged 40 or younger has played soccer.” The American soccer league is two decades old and it is now getting to know its second generation of fans. The United States is building its own family soccer tradition.

The consolidation of soccer

FIFA says more people (24.5 million) play soccer in the United States than anywhere else in the world except in China (26.1 million). In this respect, the United States is even ahead of India (20.5 million), Germany (16.3 million) and Brazil (13.2 million). It also has the second-largest federation of players (4.2 million), falling only behind Germany (6.3 million).

In 2014, 26.5 million saw the World Cup final in Brazil, making it the most-watched soccer game in this country’s history, with far more viewers than the World Cup final in South Africa in 2010. About 24.3 million tuned in for that match.

TV stations in the United States offer more live broadcasts of soccer games than any other place, a report in The Economist says.

Soccer is already showing up in some polls as the fourth-most-popular sport to watch on TV ahead of ice hockey, car racing, tennis and golf.

And then there is the national team. Fans can enjoy the sport together in a way that they can’t American football or baseball. In order to win a wider audience, it’s not only important that the team does well at the Copa America tournament. The men’s team has to classify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and begin to get people just as excited as the women’s team, which, over the last two decades, has become the best in the world, scoring major victories at the World Cup and Olympic Games.

Copa America will also face a logistical challenge. The tournament which runs from June 3 to June 26 will compete for viewers with the European Championship, which is set for June 10 through July 10 in France. Alfonso Mondelo says the Copa America will be the most important sports event in the United States this summer – ahead of Nascar racing, baseball season and the US Open. Some polls say soccer is already becoming the fourth-most-popular sport to watch ahead of ice hockey, car racing, tennis and golf.

“Soccer has really changed in the United States,” Professor Markovits says. “All of this would not have happened if there hadn’t been that World Cup or without the women’s success. This has taken decades and now it’s taking off. I don’t think it’ll be in my lifetime but one day the United States will win the World Cup.”

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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