Making a cross

    We are all familiar with the image of soccer moms driving their children to practice and cheering them on at their games. These kids eat, sleep and dream soccer. In fact, UCSD women’s soccer head coach Brian McManus claims that the United States has the largest population of youth playing soccer in the world. However, the numbers drop off at the college and professional levels, and the sport has yet to develop the mass appeal of football, baseball or basketball. Those who follow the action of both American and European professional leagues passionately are most likely involved in the sport themselves as either players or coaches.

    Kenrick Leung
    Guardian

    All of that may soon change. With the success of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams at the international level in recent years, especially at this year’s men’s World Cup, soccer may one day become a major sport in this country. The sport — or “”the beautiful game”” as it has been called around the world — is only just now making an impact and increasing its fan base in the United States, despite its long history as the world’s most popular sport.

    The rise of the women’s game in the United States began after it won the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 women’s World Cup. Americans gained a sudden interest in their men’s team last summer during its successful World Cup campaign. This was evidenced by the 3.8 million homes watching the quarterfinal game between the United States and Germany on ESPN, which was the largest soccer audience ever on the network.

    Young stars such as Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley made headlines and became increasingly visible in the aftermath. Other international soccer powers also began to take American soccer seriously after years of doubting its teams’ ability to play the game. As a result of the increasing popularity, there are now more players, fans, ticket sales and television viewers of soccer than ever in the U.S.

    Soccer enthusiasts are glad to see that their sport is finally gaining momentum.

    “”Most people had never really heard about it until the World Cup,”” said UCSD midfielder Molly Carlson.

    Other members of the women’s soccer team agreed.

    “”People are starting to understand the game more. It is also becoming more available to people and they are noticing that it’s an enjoyable sport,”” said Carlson’s teammate, Lauren Jacobs.

    However, the road to popularity has not been easy. This has been due in part to the lack of positive media attention.

    “”Rather than try to understand the sport, they either put it down or ignored it,”” McManus said.

    Despite the ridicule the sport has received, soccer is still a popular recreational activity, especially for young people. The nature of the sport makes it an attractive choice for athletes.

    “”It’s a group sport that a lot of people can play together,”” Carlson said. “”You can play it when you’re young or old.””

    The sport appeals to parents as well.

    “”[Soccer] is very agreeable for moms and dads,”” said UCSD men’s soccer head coach Derek Armstrong. “”It is clean and healthy and moms want to see their kids play a clean sport.””

    The growth of professional leagues has also contributed to the rise of the sport.

    “”[Major League Soccer] is great for the sport. It is not at the same level as the European leagues, but it has improved with the younger Americans,”” McManus said.

    McManus has also been impressed with the improvement in the quality of players in the United States.

    “”Now, American players are in the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Dutch League. They’re being recognized all over the world, and people in America are starting to know their names,”” McManus said.

    Armstrong credits the invention of the satellite with adding to the popularity of the sport, because fans “”can now see more soccer than ever.”” However, he believes that soccer needs to be made more accessible by putting it on national television rather than having to turn to Spanish-language channels to watch major games. He believes that success at the international level is also key.

    “”It will be very important that we win the women’s World Cup again next year,”” he said.

    Players believe that the sport and its professional leagues, the MLS and WUSA, will also have to be commercialized and promoted to generate a mass appeal before it will take off.

    “”Most of the popularity will have to do with publicity and advertising,”” said UCSD forward Kristin Jones.

    Armstrong is happy to have witnessed the growth of the sport in the United States. He has also been actively involved in developing its popularity.

    For the past two years, Armstrong has been the chairman of U.S. Club Soccer, a nonprofit organization solely committed to supporting and developing competitive soccer clubs. The club teams will help future elite players by allowing them to play other teams all over the country.

    Armstrong believes that the sport will continue to grow as those who play the game now will get their children involved in the future. In addition, knowledge of the sport will continue to spread as players become coaches.

    He is also sure that there are more young stars yet to come who will attract attention both at home and abroad.

    “”There are more Landon Donovans in the pipeline. He is definitely not a unique case,”” Armstrong said. “”Everyone in the world wants to get a handle on future Landon Donovans, so we must be doing something right.””

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