On December 6th 2013, the United States Men’s National Team was dealt a hand no one thought they would get out of. At the group drawing for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the United States was drawn into Group G, or, as it was infamously known to the media, "The Group of Death." Suddenly the optimism many Americans had about the upcoming World Cup was dashed away in a fiery pit of despair and sadness. 32 teams qualify for the World Cup, they are then randomly drawn into eight groups with four teams in each group. The United States were ranked 13th in the world (although that was pretty forgiving because they had beaten a lot of easy teams to get there). The other three teams drawn into Group G were Ghana (ranked 23rd, though they were still a team to be reckoned with), Portugal (ranked 5th, with the soccer giant Cristiano Ronaldo) and Germany (ranked 2nd, and would go onto win the whole tournament). Only two teams from each group advance to the next round of the tournament. Many had expected Germany to be in the final, and that Portugal would easily sail their way past the United States and Ghana to take the other advancing spot. So the United States were not expected to advance out of the Group G, easily the hardest group in the tournament, and many didn’t see them winning any games at all. Boy did all of that change.
On June 16th 2014, the United States faced their first test in Ghana. To everyone’s surprise, Clint Dempsey would score in the first 30 seconds and put the United States ahead. With five minutes left to go in the game they found themselves tied 1-1 and with a corner kick. John Brooks would head in the go-ahead goal to win the game for the US, an amazing start for the squad. Next they faced Portugal, an extremely riveting game that the US should have won had they not given up a last second goal right before the final whistle. Still, a 2-2 draw with the 5th ranked nation in the world is pretty spectacular. The US would then go on to lose a pretty meaningless match to Germany 1-0 because they had already basically clinched a spot to advance. In the next match, which was a knockout game, the US was matched up with a perfectly beatable Belgium squad. It was an intense match, and while the US could have emerged the victors, their story came to an end as they lost 2-1 in extra time. They had a chance to win with Chris Wondolowski missing a wide open shot right in front of goal, but it was not to be, and the US were knocked out of the tournament.
The United States made it farther than anyone thought, and could’ve gone even farther. Did they play technically sound soccer? No. But at the time, it didn’t really matter. They found a way to score and it captured the entire nation. Just watch this video of bars and watch parties filled with thousands of people watching the US play. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0t1wlBS08Q). Not only had they proven themselves to the world, but more importantly, they proved themselves to their own country. The soccer environment in America has been a grim one up until a few years ago. Football, basketball, andbBaseball dominate the market, especially the TV market. However, soccer is on the rise and I think since the World Cup it is rapidly expanding and growing at the professional level like never before.
Back to that video I linked to earlier. See how many people in those videos just casually wearing office clothes or weekend clothes? Exactly. I bet most of those people had probably never watched a soccer game in their life, but they were swept up in all the drama and suspense of the World Cup and they couldn’t help but join in on all the fun. And, as Americans, we love being patriotic. We love wearing that red white and blue and bearing the stars and stripes whenever we can and any opportunity to rally behind the flag we gobble up. People look at the TV and see USA on the scoreboard and they can’t help but root for them. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s hockey, the Olympics, the World Cup, anything. So they watch the US do pretty well in the World Cup, and suddenly they start watching other games that we have here in the US. And our domestic leagues are expanding at a rate no one saw coming.
In you’re unfamiliar, we have three main leagues here in the United States. The MLS (Major League Soccer,) the premier league here in the states, followed by the NASL (North American Soccer League), which is sort of like the minor league, and finally the USL (United Soccer League) which is the third tier of American league soccer. All three have been expanding at a rapid rate when it comes to talent, TV ratings, and league sizes.
Back in 1996 when the MLS started play, they only had ten teams. Now they have 20, with four more being added in the next two to four years. The USL started with 15 teams, and will have 32 by 2018. That’s over a 50% increase for both leagues in just 20 years of play. For attendance MLS games have increased 40% in ten years. In 2006 the league was averaging around 15,000 fans per-game. This season they’ve averaged just over 21,000 fans per-game, and they’re growing more and more every season. For the USL they just started a brand new team here in Cincinnati and they blew up the USL attendance records in just their first season. FC Cincinnati had an average of over 17,000 fans per game and set records for most attendance at an Ohio soccer game, as well as a USL game. As for TV ratings, the MLS has made some blockbuster deals with both ESPN and Fox Sports to televise more games than ever before. Just between this season and last, ESPN games have gotten a 25% increase in viewership while Fox Sports games have gotten a 37% increase in viewership, with an average of 276,000 watching each MLS game. So by all of those metrics, soccer has been growing rapidly. Ten years ago these stats would not be very convincing.
But what makes these numbers matter is the quality and talent of play on the field and that has exponentially gotten better since the inception of the league. Since David Beckham came to the league in 2007, more and more talent has been coming from across the globe and developing here in the states. Names like Robbie Keane, Sebastien Giovinco, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Kaka, and Giovani Dos Santos are just a few to name that have brought a lot of talent and views to the MLS. And the US has produced solid players like Gyasi Zardes, Julian Green, Jordan Morris, and Matt Miazga to name a few. In a world where the best players are going to England, Germany, Mexico, and Spain, quality players beginning to find their way to the United States will raise the league’s quality of play and bring more and more big name players and more and more TV views as a result.
So while there is still plenty of room to expand and improve, the US is on a good road going forward. The next major milestone will be the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If the United States could make it to the final eight, or even the semi-finals, it would do so much for this country and our soccer program. And h.