Soccer in the United States today
Interest in soccer within the United States has grown rapidly starting in the 1990s. This has been attributed to the fact that the 1994 FIFA World Cup was played in the United States, the first time the event was held in the U.S. This won the sport more attention from both the media and casual sports fans. As part of the United States' bid to host the World Cup in 1994, U.S. Soccer pledged to create a professional outdoor league for the first time since the collapse of the NASL a decade earlier. That effort culminated in the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996, which helped develop American players in a way that was not possible without a domestic league. Many of these players competed in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where the United States did surprisingly well, finishing in the quarterfinals by beating archrivals Mexico in the Round of 16 and narrowly losing to eventual Runners-Up Germany in the quarterfinals.
Unlike in most soccer playing nations, the growth of the women's game in the U.S. has helped increase overall interest in soccer in the United States. Both the 1999 and 2003 FIFA Women's World Cups were held in the United States, and the United States has emerged as one of the best national teams in the world. They are currently ranked first in the FIFA Women's World Rankings, have won two of the five FIFA Women's World Cups held thus far, and have also won gold medals in three of the four Olympic women's football tournaments held to date. The crowd of over 90,000 at the Rose Bowl for the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup Final remains the largest crowd in the world ever to witness any women's sporting event.
The professional first-division league in the United States is Major League Soccer, which has 14 teams in the U.S. and one in Canada, with expansion planned to bring the league to 18 teams by the 2011 season. The United Soccer Leagues are a collection of five leagues spanning the lower divisions of men's professional soccer, as well as women's soccer and youth soccer. The USL First Division is the professional second-division league in the United States and contains eight U.S. teams, two Canadian teams, and one Puerto Rican team, with two expansion teams planned for the 2010 season. The USL Second Division is the professional third-division league in the U.S. and contains eight U.S. teams and one team from Bermuda. The semi-professional fourth-division league in the United States is the USL Premier Development League, which has 62 U.S. teams and six Canadian teams, with two more expansion teams planned for the 2010 season. Though the PDL does have some paid players, it also has many teams that are made up entirely or almost entirely of college soccer players who use the league as an opportunity to play competitive soccer in front of professional scouts during the summer, while retaining amateur status and NCAA eligability. In addition to MLS and the USL, the United States Adult Soccer Association governs amateur soccer competition for adults throughout the United States, which is effectively the amateur fifth-division of soccer in the United States. The USASA sanctions regional tournaments that allow entry into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the oldest continuous soccer competition in the United States. This competition pits teams from all five levels of the American soccer pyramid against each other each year, similar to England's FA Cup.
Women's soccer in the United States is also played at the professional level. The professional first-division women's soccer league in the U.S. is Women's Professional Soccer, and it is composed of seven teams, all based in the United States, with plans to expand to nine teams for the 2010 season. The USL's W-League is currently the women's semi-professional second-division league, which contains 30 U.S.-based teams and seven Canadian-based teams. This league serves roughly the same purpose for women's soccer as the USL's PDL serves for men's soccer, in that it allows collegiate players to maintain NCAA eligability while continuing to develop their game against quality opponents. There is no equivalent to the U.S. Open Cup in the women's game currently.
Despite the growth of men's women's professional soccer in the United States in the last few decades, by far the largest category of soccer in the United States, at least in terms of participation, is boys and girls youth soccer. Though organized locally by organizations all over the United States, there are three main youth soccer organizations working nationwide through affiliated local associations. The United States Youth Soccer Association boasts over three million players between the ages of five and 19, while American Youth Soccer Organization has more than 300,000 players between the ages of four and 19. Finally, the USL offers a number of youth leagues, including the Super-20 League and the Super Y-League, which have almost 1,000 teams and tens of thousands of players from the ages of 13 to 20. This makes soccer one of the most played sports by children in the United States.
The overall league structure in the United States is significantly different from that used in almost all the rest of the world, but similar to that used by other North American team sports leagues, in that there is no system of promotion and relegation between lower and higher leagues, but rather a minor league system. In adition, teams playing in American soccer leagues are not private clubs founded independently of the league that join a league in order to ensure regular fixtures, but are instead usually franchises of the league itself. Finally, the soccer leagues in the United States also incorporate features common to other American sports leagues, most notably the determination of champions by playoffs between the top teams after the conclusion of a league season that uses an imbalanced schedule, as opposed to a league season using a balanced schedule, but without playoffs. This means that rather than playing a balanced schedule in which each team plays every team at home and away the same number of times to determine the best team (since each team functionally plays the same schedule), U.S. sports leagues play a regionally-dominated schedule (often necessary due to the large size of the United States) with imbalances in the schedule being sorted out by a knockout tournament featuring the league's best teams. However, in several ways, American soccer leagues have become more similar to leagues in the rest of the world in recent years. MLS and USL now allow games to end in ties, which were initially avoided via a penalty shootout if scores were level at the end of play. This was done to avoid alienating mainstream American sports fans, who are not accustomed to tie games, but actually had the unintended consequence of alienating soccer purists who saw the change as an "Americanization" of the sport. MLS began allowing ties in the 2005 season. Additionally, MLS and USL also use upward-counting clocks that do not stop for stoppages in play, and instead add on time before half time and full time. A downward-counting clock that stops for dead balls and ends the game when it reaches zero is still in use in American high school and college soccer (except for private high schools in Texas, which use FIFA rules), as well as most other American sports, but was and is completely foreign to soccer played outside the United States. MLS adopted the international clock in 2000. Finally, until recently, the front of teams' shirts in MLS and the USL did not bear advertisements, as commercial uniform sponsorship is uncommon in American sports. However, starting in the mid 2000s, clubs were allowed to accept corporate sponsorship on the front of their shirts.
Popularity of soccer in the United States
Leagues outside the United States and international soccer have also become more popular in the last decade, largely due to increased television coverage of soccer from around the world for the first time in the United States. In addition to increased coverage from the traditional media, the U.S. several national networks devoted mostly or completely to covering the sport. Soccer-specific channels like Fox Soccer Channel, Setanta Sports North America, and Gol TV (available in both Spanish and English); Spanish-language channels like Telemundo, Telefutura, Galavisión, ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports en Español; and mainstream sports networks ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and Fox Sports Net provide weekly coverage of England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, the FA Cup, the Football League Cup, the Football League Championship, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Europa League, the CONCACAF Champions League, the SuperLiga, and many more competitions. In addition, these networks also provide coverage of the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA European Football Championship, Copa América, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the FIFA Confederations Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, United States men's, women's, and youth national team matches when these events take place. Finally, in adition to matches, these channels provide news programs and other information previously unavailable to U.S. viewers. The rise of these media outlets means that soccer fans living in the United States now have near constant access to programming about the sport in a way comparable to those living in Europe or Latin America.
The English and Spanish-language telecasts of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final combined to attract an estimated 16.9 million American viewers, comparable to the average viewership of the 2005 World Series. Interestingly, Univision paid more than three times as much for the Spanish-language television rights for the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups as ABC paid for the English-language rights to the same competitions. In 2007, the CONCACAF Gold Cup attracted record television viewership, and in the case of one particular group stage match, it was the most-watched primetime program on any network that night among 18-49 males. The Univision telecast of the final between the United States and Mexico was the third-most watched Spanish-language program of all-time in the United States, beaten only by two FIFA World Cup finals matches.
One factor contributing to the relatively slow pace of soccer's growth in popularity is the competitive nature amongst various American youth sports programs, primarily centered around community clubs in the pre-teen years and secondary school teams thereafter. In some regions of the U.S., high school soccer and American football are both played in the fall and a student generally cannot devote time to both. Until the 1980s, most high schools in the U.S. did not offer soccer at all, and youth soccer programs were extremely rare until the 1970s. Thus, older generations of Americans living today grew up with virtually no exposure to the sport.
As youth soccer programs have grown since the 1970s, however, increasing numbers of Americans, having played the game in their youth, are now avid spectators, especially in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, Texas, South Florida, and California. Most cities with MLS teams have large fan bases, and cities with USL teams have support on par with minor league teams in other sports. In addition, as Latin American immigration increases throughout the entire nation, so is the popularity of soccer.
In recent decades, more and more youth sports organizations have turned to soccer as either a supplement to or a replacement for American football in their programs. This is primarily for economic reasons, as cash-strapped programs find it more difficult to justify the high costs of American football, due to the large amount of expensive equipment required, while at the same time the insurance risks associated with American football are far greater. Simultaneously, with increased urbanization, American high schools have grown to the point where most offer both sports in their fall sports seasons. Due to the rising number of youths playing, the term soccer mom is used in North American social, cultural and political discourse, broadly referring to a middle- or upper-middle class woman working and having school-age children.
Although soccer in the United States has gained more recognition with the arrival of David Beckham and Cuauhtémoc Blanco in Major League Soccer and increased success of the United States men's and women's national soccer teams, soccer viewership is dwarfed by viewership of the Major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada. The "Big Four" North American sports (American football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey) are followed to a much greater extent, especially when including the collegiate level of these sports, than soccer. One explanation of this is that the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League, are near-universally considered to be the highest professional level of competition in their respective sports, something that is not presently true about Major League Soccer. In adition, individual sports like auto racing, tennis, and golf are currently more popular than soccer as spectator sports in the United States.
However, there are signs that, if top-level soccer has not yet gained wide acceptance, it has at least gained a foothold in the U.S. With careful cost controls, soccer-specific stadiums, and limited expansion, some MLS clubs became profitable for the first time in the mid 2000s, and Forbes magazine found that three clubs were already valued at $40 million or more, with the Los Angeles Galaxy worth $100 million. The league's 2007 and 2009 expansion to Toronto and Seattle, respectively, have proven highly successful, with league-leading ticket and merchandise sales, capped by a sold-out attendances for friendlies against Real Madrid of Spain and Chelsea of England. In addition, the 2009 World Football Challenge drew large crowds around the country. Chelsea's four-game stint in America drew record crowds for a visiting foreign team.
The United States has also shown a heightened interest in international soccer. UEFA Euro 2008 was highly successful, especially for a competition that did not feature the United States or David Beckham's England. The 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup Final featuring the United States attracted almost 4 million viewers on ESPN, making it the fourth-most-watched U.S. men's national team game in the history of the network. The 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal matches drew over 82,000 to Cowboys Stadium.
Many writers have speculated on why soccer has not gained significant popularity in the United States as it is in most other countries. Theories include that other sports cornered the market before professional soccer could prosper, that soccer is a "foreign game," that Americans do not dominate the game, that there are too many draws, and that there is not enough scoring. The United States has many popular sports, and this proliferation and abundance of choice is perhaps the biggest reason of all that soccer does not dominate the sporting landscape in the way it does in most regions of the world where there are few other sports.
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