“I know it is disappointing but what you guys accomplished is really, really significant and it will make a difference to the country.” These were the words of Barack Obama as he rang Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to congratulate them on their World Cup performance. Taking into account the country’s performance in Brazil, as well as the unprecedented number of supporters that followed the team round, it does make you wonder how far football (or soccer) can go in the States.
On the 6th December 2013, the World Cup groups were drawn in Bahia. It was a tough draw for the US, and it seemed inevitable that the quality of Germany and Portugal as well as the dangerous Ghana would ensure the Americans would only play three games in Brazil. Fast-forward to the 22nd May 2014, when Landon Donovan was left off of the US team roster for the World Cup, quite surprising when you look at the stats. He has 136 MLS goals, making him the league’s all-time top goalscorer, and has 57 international goals which again makes him the all-time top scorer. Oh, and he also has more assists for his country than any other American player. Not too shabby. The absence of Donovan meant that the US would have even less supporters at home during the World Cup. They were doomed, surely?
Or not. The United States had the perfect start to their campaign, with a Clint Dempsey goal giving them the lead in their opening game against Ghana within a minute. An 86th minute winner from Brooks gave his country a 2-1 victory and an early three points. In their second game, they were seconds away from a sensational win over Portugal, but a Varela goal broke their hearts. Still, they would have taken a 2-2 draw before the game. Onto to Recife for their final game of the group stage against Germany, and Klinsmann’s crew put in a brilliant performance, and though they lost 1-0 they had still done enough to progress to the last 16 against all odds. Landon Donovan must have been thrilled. Against Belgium in Salvador, in arguably the best match of the round, Tim ‘Secretary of Defence’ Howard made a record 16 saves but it wasn’t enough as the USA were defeated 2-1 in extra time. In many ways, the result was not important. The Americans had put in such a performance, and it had brought the whole country together. They understood the sport, and they were enjoying it. Never before had such coverage been brought to soccer in the US.
While the success of the national team can certainly go a long way to increase the popularity of the sport, it is the MLS, and before that the college system, which are the vital components in stealing the hearts of the American people. Unfortunately, unless a major overhaul is undertaken, the huge potential of football in the country will continue to fall short. Jurgen Klinsmann summed up the initial problem perfectly: “You pay for having your kid play soccer because your goal is not that your kid becomes a professional soccer player – because your goal is that your kid gets a scholarship in a high school or in a college, which is completely opposite from the rest of the world.” Then there is the obvious problem in the MLS: there is no promotion or relegation. Yes, this creates a nice, fluffy league where the successes are shared out but it also means that young American players are not brought up with the same strong competition that players in other countries are.
This has not stopped the marquee signings of Kaka and David Villa to Orlando City and New York City respectively, and with players of this quality coming in it is clear that competition will definitely increase in the MLS. If Americans are able to see such heroes of the game week-in, week-out then popularity of the sport will only increase.
With endless resources, fanatical supporters, huge stars playing in the MLS and a national team with potential there is no doubting that football can become a major force in the US, and that the US can become a major force in football. Whilst there are problems with the set up of football in the country, the biggest problem is that it is not yet clear whether Americans actually want the sport to succeed. If they get behind the sport then they could quite easily host the World Cup in 2026 and have a MLS which attracts big, big names. It’s an exciting time to be involved in football in America, and who knows how far it can go?
So then… over to you America.
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