Can The World Cup Create New American Soccer Fans?

In a little over a week, a tournament will commence that millions around the world wait for during an excruciatingly long four-year period.  It’s a contest that players, coaches, and fans take immense interest in, and even elicits mild curiosity from the casual spectator.  Many follow the progress of their national teams in the four year intervals, eagerly watching their development until the time comes when the squad is finally announced: the twenty-three that will represent their country on the world’s largest stage.

This year, the stage is set in Brazil and the World Cup kicks off in Sao Paulo with the host nation playing Croatia. It’s a moment that has been anticipated since the finale of the 2010 edition when Spain lifted the trophy in South Africa and proclaimed themselves champions of the world. It almost seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it?

It was a moment to appreciate the present, reflecting on all the matches the summer had offered and the brilliance the world had seen in each one, but it was also a time to envision what the following World Cup would offer. Brazil seemed so far off, yet so near.  With the history the country offers as the all-time leading champion, Brazil presents itself as a land of intrigue and infinite possibilities with its size and diversity.

Since the moment FIFA announced the 2014 World Cup would be hosted by Brazil, the reaction to the news was a complete mixture of appreciation and derision. Much of the negativity stemmed from within the borders of Brazil, interestingly enough, and focused heavily on the construction of the new stadiums built specifically for the tournament.  With costs skyrocketing past initial expectations, deadlines falling drastically behind schedule, entire neighborhoods moved out due to their decrepit appearances and proximity to the venues, and numerous injuries and deaths resulting from poor working conditions, the entire affair had many wondering whether the contest would even be a positive experience.

Does the World Cup provide dreams of a bright summer and even brighter future, or simply undelivered promises hidden underneath the hype and expectations?

It’s interesting the differing perspectives and opinions that a single event can create; however, it’s not too difficult to grasp as the World Cup literally affects the activities of entire nations that live and breathe soccer. Businesses cut hours, people skip work, crowds gather at bars, pubs, and restaurants (anywhere with access to a television and alcohol), and soon the chants begin. National anthems, players’ names, the tournament’s official song—it could be anything, as long as it fuels the fire of passion.

As the opening date of the group stage draws near, it doesn’t take long to notice people on the streets sporting the jerseys and waving the flags of their country. It’s a moment to take pride in your nation as the selected players represent you.

Any time the prestigious tournament rolls around, the sport catches the attention of the United States for a brief amount of time. Numerous television networks fight for the broadcasting rights, as the ratings for soccer seem to soar during the period despite never recreating those strong numbers any other time of the year. It begs the question of, “does the U.S. have a passionate enough of a following to warrant any success the team may garner in the tournament?”

Soccer still lags far behind the major sports in this country in terms of viewership and attendance, despite the recent trends of growth that suggest a shift could occur in the near future. It’s safe to say there are more than enough eyeballs on the one month that consists of the World Cup, but how about the other times of the year when Major League Soccer is in session?

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reason why the average American will tune into the World Cup and cheer on their team but insists on ignoring the existence of a league within the country’s borders. It may be a lack of awareness and perhaps some teams have yet to reach out and publicize themselves enough in their area to get more fans in the stadium.

Maybe there isn’t a team nearby for them to cheer for. MLS consists of 19 teams at the moment, with two more to join for the 2015 season, and another arriving two years later.  Some of these teams are filling holes in the map where the lack of a professional soccer team is very apparent. It seems Commissioner Don Garber has made it his mission at the moment to focus on expanding to the Southeast, where previous teams folded at the start of the millennium, and also gain teams in bigger markets to feed more money into the league.

MLS isn’t the richest league in the world by any means, which might be a reason why it hasn’t caught on yet because it doesn’t have the same amount of reach as the Premier League or La Liga. That by no means negates MLS’s development, which has been incredible since its inception in 1996, as the number of teams has nearly doubled and the level of play has vastly improved. The fact remains, though, that the sport can’t acquire the TV deals it desires to extend to broader audiences. Networks that broadcast MLS games seem to only acquire a dozen from the entire slate of games and, of the teams chosen, there doesn’t appear to be much diversity.

There is no doubt that the average MLS follower most likely is a fan of the U.S. national team and will watch every single match it participates in this summer. A typical MLS fan seems to be well-versed in the sport, watching the games of other teams in the league, following the play of various leagues around the world, as well as observing the progress of several different national teams. Perhaps this is no different than any other soccer fan from another part of the world, but the point is that there seems to be a certain type of passion that only exists within a soccer fan, as opposed to a fan of another sport.

Soccer fans seem to be the ones most willing to jump up and down, scream, wear the colors of their team, and stay proud regardless of a win or tie. They never give up, and this attitude continues to be reflected when it comes to the national team as well. The connection of the love of your soccer team and the love of your country is tied together because every four years the players you follow take part in the most important games of their lives.

This type of fanaticism and passion seems limited in the U.S. as the majority of the population hardly pays attention to the sport anyway. So the question remains if the future of soccer within the United States is a bright one or not. Does it have a tough road to complete in order to garner more fans, to create a tough, competitive league that can win over the casual viewers and make admirers out of them?

The World Cup is the battleground, not only for the U.S. national team in Brazil, but also for the popularity of the sport amongst Americans. Will this be the year that more people take an interest and wonder who are these faces representing them down in South America, what teams they play for, what their histories are, or why they’ve been chosen as opposed to others?

If soccer can pose these kinds of questions to its audience then the road to soccer’s success in America will be much easier.

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