It’s no secret – -soccer has fought to gain a foothold in the hearts and minds of Americans.
And for most of that battle, it has been a losing one. With baseball, the NFL, NBA and the NHL already firmly established as the county’s recognised pastimes, soccer was up against it.
Soccer was Europe’s thing. And after the first attempt at establishing soccer in the US died a very slow death, it was thought that soccer may never grab its fair share of fans and budding players.
It was back in 1967 that soccer really began its quest to win over the US. Two professional leagues began – one was sanctioned by FIFA, the other wasn’t. After a very short space of time, both of these competitions merged to form the NASL (North American Soccer League) – and this was just the beginning of some big efforts to grab a slice of the American sporting pie.
The league grew quickly as franchises were doled out by interested states who saw the initial wave of interest and thought they could have their share. And at first, audiences were lapping up the action.
This was helped largely by NASL clubs signing aging world superstar soccer players. Luminaries of the game such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johann Cruyff were on the rosters of teams, but it was New York Cosmos who were drawing in the crowds. In fact, they had an average of 40,000 fans packing their home ground – the Giants stadium – every game at one point.
The Cosmos begun this campaign of signing legendary soccer players at the end of their careers – and so other clubs followed.
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Famous Players That Played in The USA
George Best played for two NASL franchises in his career – both the LA Aztecs and San Jose Earthquakes profited from the pull of the Northern Irish dazzler. And in his first spell with the Aztecs, he bagged 15 goals in 24 appearances. After a stint at Fulham, Best returned to LA but his heart wasn’t in it. A spell at San Jose followed where he averaged a goal every other game, but he soon tailed off, with his battles against alcoholism most likely responsible for stealing the magic from his boots.
Franz Beckenbauer’s German compatriot and scoring machine, Gerd Muller, joined his pal in America, signing for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. And Muller kept up his impressive rate of scoring – but unfortunately, his time in the US coincided with sliding TV audiences.
As mentioned, Johan Cruyff made his way across the pond, a huge coup for the NASL at the time. The Dutch superstar was chiefly responsible for transforming soccer in the 70s and he had plenty to offer when he signed for the LA Aztecs at 32. Unlike his fellow superstars, Cruyff wasn’t quite at retirement age and so his first season, he blew away opponents and audiences with his level of skill, resulting in being awarded the NASL Player of the Year in 1979.
A short spell with the Washington Diplomats followed, before leaving to rejoin his boyhood club in the Netherlands, Ajax.
And there were plenty of others who joined the NASL soccer revolution to push the game to a bigger audience and attempt to cash in. England World Cup heroes Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Portuguese icon Eusebio, Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto and so many more.
And yet, by 1985, the NASL had disbanded, with just two franchises showing interest to carry on.
The experiment had failed. US audiences had dwindled, those in power at the clubs had no experience in soccer whatsoever – it all culminated in soccer leaving baseball, basketball and football unchallenged as the darlings of the US sports scene.
That is, until the MLS finally ironed out the errors that the NASL made – and got it right.
The MLS (Major League Soccer) began officially in 1988 as a condition of FIFA awarding the World Cup to the US in 1994. In 1995, the MLS officially kicked off.
And soccer was circling the drain again. By 2001, two franchises had folded. Money was like grains of sand through the hands of clubs, but the building of soccer-specific stadiums and some smart player acquisitions helped turn things around. So much so that if we fast-forward to the present day, the stats speak for themselves.
The MLS has the third highest average in terms of attendance in the US, behind the NFL and the MLB. If we go worldwide, the MLS has the seventh highest professional soccer attendance on average.
And the growth shows no sign of stopping. There is TV coverage in all major soccer-consuming countries. And the MLS franchise numbers continue to rise. By 2023, there will be 30 teams competing for the MLS Cup, with the addition of Sacramento and St Louis in 2023.
That’s quite the upturn for soccer. Once considered the last sport for selection at schools and parks, now colleges fully support soccer and drafts and scholarships are ultra-competitive. Kids now dream of hitting hat-tricks just as much as home runs and touchdowns.
Many experts put the turning point at when worldwide superstar David Beckham joined LA Galaxy.
Prior to Beckham becoming the poster child of soccer, the MLS was on its knees. Teams were shedding money. The number of franchises in the MLS had dropped to 10 and owners were pulling out quickly. It appeared that soccer had failed to imprint itself on this generations as well as the last.
But the combination of a successful 2002 World Cup for the US National team, where they reached the Quarter-Finals, and the debut of wonderkid Freddy Adu at 14, captured the imagination of American youth. The dream was reimagined and now, kids could see their dream coming true as it was transpiring in real life, with the help of Adu.
The MLS had a boost, but it needed to maintain this upward curve. To capitalise on this momentum, an attention-grabbing move would be needed, before the big boys of the MLB, NBA and NFL regained their foothold.
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Step forward David Beckham
The England captain signed in 2007 and sell-out crowds followed. Everyone knew his name and everyone, even non-soccer fans, wanted to grab a glimpse of the famous Number 7. Another boost for the MLS came in the form of Toronto FC – who had a waiting list for tickets even before they had kicked a single soccer ball.
Not only did Beckham herald in the new age for soccer in the US, he paved the way for other superstars to ride the crest of the wave – and it meant that the MLS could recoup lost money, with packed crowds eager to see these household names.
Thierry Henry. Freddie Ljungberg. Didier Drogba. Sebastian Giovinco. Steven Gerrard. David Villa. Andrea Pirlo. Frank Lampard.
Some of the biggest names of the past ten years were on display, which maintained the attendance levels and enabled franchises to gain a solid foundation before looking to field a longer-term solution rather than big money purchases.
And now the MLS can boast nearly half of all professional players plying their trade in the MLS are born and bred in the MLS. Which is a good barometer for the grassroots game in the US – as well as interest levels in soccer in schools.
In 2015, there were approximately 24.4 million soccer players at youth level. Another real boost for the sport is the incredible success of the Women’s game, winning all before them and the players becoming huge names across the world. They are not only incredible soccer players, but they are also pioneers who are pushing the boundary for equality everywhere.
Both Women’s and Men’s soccer is in rude health, as kids have just as much opportunity to watch the sport, but they also have soccer as part of the physical education programme in schools and further education across the country.
It means that the future of soccer is in good hands, with a steady stream of kids kicking a soccer ball – which was just a pipe dream only a decade or so before.