Fans are excited about soccer’s recent popularity increase in America’s sporting culture and hope for its increased national presence and relevance.
During the most recent World Cup in Brazil, soccer took over the sports channels and airwaves in America — reaching 25 million viewers during the U.S. vs. Portugal game and surpassing the NBA. Finals (15.5 million) and World Series (14.9 million) for viewership. Although “the beautiful game” isn’t as established in the U.S. as football or basketball, it is on the rise.
To help give perspective to how the sport is growing, the league commissioner of the Utah Youth Soccer Association, Daren Woolstenhulme, talked about the booming growth in American soccer.
“Soccer is gaining momentum because it’s more visible and our branding is better,” Woolstenhulme said. “There are better trainers, opportunities, coaches, services and fields, which makes soccer more appealing to kids and parents.”
Youth participation in soccer has grown 10 percent every year since 2009, rising from 36,000 to 53,000 players in the state of Utah alone. The state has approximately 630 soccer fields in the state, with 1,350 teams playing at the competitive level. That figure doesn’t include the countless other teams playing at the district and recreation league levels, along with adult and indoor leagues across the state.
Woolstenhulme said part of the reason more players are joining the league is because the training is more advanced than it was 10 years ago, and clubs are more developed, much like America’s neighbors across the pond.
“These youth are getting trained by elite athletes, who have played at a very competitive level,” Wollstenhulme said. “I think you will see that soccer in the U.S. will start to match the type of structure and development programs you see in longstanding European leagues and that in 10 to 15 years the United States will win a World Cup.”
BYU men’s soccer Assistant Head Coach Chad Sackett agrees that soccer is expanding and developing and says that so much of sports is about generations and that kids “do what their parents do and like what their parents like.”
“I think that for me it has to do with generations,” Sackett said. “And when you think of football and baseball, grandpas of grandpas of grandpas played it. Where now I think you’ll find that my kids are playing it because I played it, and your kids will play it because you played it.”
Since the U.S. Youth Soccer Program began in 1974, participation has increased by 2,820 percent — from 103,400 to 3,030,000 in 2012. These numbers suggest that soccer is competing with other sports. Soccer mom Erin Davis, from Smithfield, talked about why her boys play soccer.
“My son Carter wanted a (soccer) goal for his birthday, and so we got him this huge goal; and now all the neighborhood kids just hang out in our backyard and play soccer,” she said. “During the World Cup, my other son, Tanner, would just go down by himself and search for soccer games and watch them — even when there wasn’t a familiar team or player; he just loved to watch it. It got to the point where they were wanting to buy jerseys, putting their allowance towards getting jerseys of their favorite players. They were nuts about it.”.
American soccer pioneer and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas illustrated a strong example of soccer’s expansion when he shared his thoughts about the future of the sport.
“When I returned home from (the World Cup), an old man on the street approached me and said, ‘I’m not a soccer fan, I’ve never watched soccer/ This summer I watched soccer, and I just want to say that it was wonderful. I learned so much; I had such a good time.'”
“Through the summer and through the magic of soccer and through this world cup, he is now a soccer person,” Lalas said of the man. “He has it in his soul. That was a wonderful moment; for me that will always live as one of the greatest moments in my life — to have that compliment from that gentleman.”
One driving factor in soccer growth is the players themselves. A good example of a player expanding soccer’s popularity is Real Salt Lake’s central defender, Chris Schuler. Schuler grew up playing all sorts of different sports but eventually chose soccer because of the relationships he had fostered there.
“I did all sorts of other stuff before soccer: baseball, wrestling, volleyball, basketball and even taekwondo,” Schuler said. “It wasn’t until eighth or ninth grade that I focused more on soccer because that’s where I had the best relationships. It’s the world’s sport, and it’s a good sport because all you really need is a ball.”
The world’s sport is on the rise in America, and it’s happening fast. Major League Soccer wasn’t founded until 1995, making the fledgling sport seem tiny when compared to the longstanding programs like the NFL, which started in 1892. Regardless, “the beautiful game” has beaten the odds and continues to make its way into millions of Americans’ lives.