I like to look at American soccer in decade long chunks. American soccer in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s looked different in each decade and each decade demonstrated growth over its predecessor.
The ‘60s was the last decade of soccer as strictly a foreign sport. In the 70s, the NASL brought the sport to American born spectators in large numbers for the first time. The ’80s introduced the sport to children en masse. The ’90s brought two World Cups (including a USA victory in ’99) and MLS. The first decade of the 21st century gave us soccer stadia and international success with a quarterfinal appearance for the US Men in the 2002 World Cup and runner up honors in the 2009 Confederations Cup.
The steady progress leads to two important questions. Will the sport continue to grow in the next decade on these shores and if so, how will that growth be manifested?
I strongly believe the answer to the first question is ‘yes” based on the following:
- Media and society are mainstreaming soccer at unparalleled rates. Soccer bashing media members have been replaced with soccer knowledgeable journalists. American television and the internet have provided unprecedented forums for soccer coverage and discussion.
- That mainstreaming will result in better athletes playing soccer and better coaches teaching soccer.
- The world is getting smaller. More Americans are watching international soccer on television, more Americans are playing overseas and more foreign born players are moving to the US at a young age. Each of these developments will result in better players representing the US and more Americans following soccer as fans.
- MLS will be twice as large as it was a decade prior. Having 20 teams instead of ten will double the number of Americans playing the sport at the first division level and will double the number of Americans (and Canadians) watching first division local teams.
- Fans are becoming more passionate. The growth of soccer spectatorship in the last decade is not measured only by the increased quantity of fans, but also by the increased intensity of their support. More fans are caring about the sport and their favorite teams (domestically and internationally) than ever before.
The answer to the second question is the fun one to consider. What will be the milestones of soccer growth in the USA over the next ten years? Let’s peer together into the crystal soccer ball and see 11 developments by 2020. Why 11? Because it’s part of the soccer blogger code that any list has to have the same number of items as players on the field.
- The US Men’s National Team will dominate CONCACAF more than any other nation dominates its own confederation. The idea of the United States making Mexico its hexagonal pet seems outlandish now, but twenty years ago the idea that the USA would stand shoulder to shoulder with its southern neighbor was incredulous.
- Major League Soccer will merge with the Mexican Futbol League resulting in a mixed two division, three nation league with 40 clubs in Canada, the US and Mexico. It seems impossible, but even some of Jules Verne’s dreams came true. The MFL and MLS merger will increase North American interest exponentially and lead to unimagined rivalries and pots of gold derived from broadcast, merchandise and ticket sales.
- The merger of the two giant CONCACAF leagues will permit promotion and relegation between the new 1st and 2nd Division leagues.
- United States men will appear in their eighth straight World Cup and advance to the semi-finals without surprising anyone. US Soccer’s Project 2010 will miss the goal of being competitive for the World Cup trophy by a couple quadrennials. In the last twenty years, the US men have gone from a surprise qualification in Italy with Paul Caligiuri’s miraculous shot heard ‘round the world to a virtual expectation of qualification in South Africa. The leap from qualifying expectation to semi-final expectation is not that far.
- An American male world class star attacker will emerge. He won’t be named DaMarcus or Landon or Freddy, but there is very likely a very young soccer player out there today who will blossom in the next decade and become a true world class attacking player. He may or may not be born in the United States, he may or may not ever play in MLS, but there will be an American star that will turn heads wherever he plays on any stage and will inspire another generation to try to become as special as him.
- WPS will have eleven years under its belt and there will be several other quality pro women’s soccer leagues competing for world’s best status.
- The USWNT will no longer be a lock to be in the World Cup’s semi-finals. Much like the shrinking world is improving the US men’s chance of success, globalization is bringing high level women’s soccer to nations worldwide that previously viewed soccer as a men’s only activity.
- American soccer stadia will be well into at least its fifth generation by 2020. If Crew Stadium is first generation, Home Depot Center, Pizza Hut Park, Toyota Park etc. are 2G and Red Bull Arena is 3G, American soccer stadia will at least be on its 5G by 2020. 5G stadia will typically be 40,000 seat, urban venues with full roofs, soccer museums, pubs and high end and high tech amenities except in Seattle where the Sounders will be playing in the brand new 120,000 seat CenturyTel Mega Stadium.
- Baltimore United will be reminiscing about the glory days of the late ‘90s…and Brooklyn will take revenge on Walter O’Malley, by stealing one of LA’s teams and rebranding them Brooklyn USA.
- The owners of the New York Monster Energy Drinks will need to raise the roof of Monster Arena to accommodate more seats for their new tenant and for the expansion of their trophy room needed when they add their tenth consecutive MLS Cup. The Monsters tenant will be the EPL’s New York FC who will earn plenty of frequent flyer miles travelling to away matches on the new generation SST.
- American newspapers will all have soccer beat reporters writing regular features, columns and analysis….ok, just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. This prediction of course is a joke, because we all know that there will be no daily newspapers in ten years.
I hope this column will be preserved in a (virtual) time capsule and reviewed a decade from now. The Pitch Invasion reader with 2020 vision may very well laugh and say, “Whoa, that guy was delusional!” But if he does, will it be, because these thoughts underestimated or overestimated the sport’s growth in the next decade?