Soccer in this country has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. Some of that growth has been spurred on by the success of the U.S. Men’s National Team as well as the U.S. Women’s National Team. Undoubtedly, some of that growth is a result of a more financially stable MLS. However, most of that growth is a result of the large presence of European club teams in the US.
Every summer we see teams from European leagues come to the US as part of their preseason. Sometimes they play against MLS teams; sometimes they play other European teams. While preseason training is one goal for these clubs, the biggest goal, no doubt, is to promote the brand and make more money. The attempt to increase brand awareness for these clubs has been wildly successful, most notably among the thousands of kids playing youth soccer. Every time you go anywhere in the United States, you don’t just see Heat jerseys or Yankees jerseys. You see shirts for Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Arsenal, AC Milan, and others.
As hard as it is to believe, this can create a problem for US players and US club teams. It has long been the case in the US that there are more fans supporting the other team than there are supporting the USA. That has started to change since 2007 with the emergence of groups like The American Outlaws and Sam’s Army. One thing that remains the same, however, is that American players, even the likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, are strangers to most people in the US, while non-American players are some of the most popular athletes among kids. In terms of popularity, soccer players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Wayne Rooney are on the same level as LeBron James, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter.
It is a little bit irritating to hear some kids saying that they will be cheering for Portugal and Germany to make it out of the group at the World Cup instead of the USA because Portugal has Ronaldo and Germany has Mesut Ozil. Fortunately, there are still plenty of Americans who will be cheering on the USA. Fan support is exploding to epic proportions, as evidenced by the fact that Americans have bought more tickets to the World Cup than anybody else, with the obvious exception of Brazil.
Some of the players on the provisional 30-man roster are a mystery to USA fans because they don’t follow MLS. They know all about who won the Premier League and who is in the UEFA Champions League Final, but have no idea who sits atop the Eastern Conference in MLS. This begs the question: Can you be a true American soccer fan if you don’t support MLS?
Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the Premier League and the Champions League, but I love watching MLS too. I have no problem sitting down with somebody and talking for hours about the Premier League, Messi vs. Ronaldo, etc. But it irritates me when I switch gears and try to talk about MLS and people just give me a blank stare. If you support the USA, then it would behoove you to learn about and watch the league where the majority of the players come from. Some of the players who have turned into mainstays for this US team – such as Nick Rimando, Matt Besler, Brad Evans, and Omar Gonzalez – star in MLS each week. Tune in and watch them sometime. If people choose not to, they have to ask themselves: Am I a true American soccer fan?