John Harkes, an international soccer star, got his first taste of soccer at a global level at the 1990 World Cup, where he competed as part of the U.S. National Soccer Team. It was there that Harkes caught the international soccer bug and knew the only cure was to play soccer where it really mattered, and that was not the United States.
“The World Cup is a great world stage,” Harkes said. “I got a taste. Then I knew that was what I wanted.”
Harkes went on to become the first American to play in the English Premier League, one of the most prestigious soccer, or “football” as it is known in the rest of the world, leagues in the world. Being an American soccer player in Europe was not easy, but he drew his confidence from the packed European soccer stadiums, the frenzied fans, and the passion for the game that enveloped him every day.
“That’s what you want as a player,” he said. “I was like, ‘Give me more.’ I pulled from that.”
In 1996, Harkes returned to the United States to play for the newly formed soccer association known as Major League Soccer, or the MLS. He traveled through the country and tried to rile up the same support and interest for soccer that he was a part of every day in Europe, but found it was not the same.
“People will tell you it’s the world’s game,” Harkes said. “But maybe it’s not America’s game.”
Soccer has a huge following around the world, especially in Europe and Latin America, but it has never caught on in the United States like it has in other countries. But members of the U.S. Soccer Federation, as well former players believe soccer is gaining popularity in the United States. While it may take a considerable amount of time to reach the point of success that clubs in Europe have, many believe that soccer could someday have a role in America’s sports.
Andres Cantor, a sportscaster for Telemundo, has had soccer at the center of his life since he was a child. Today, Cantor is known for his characteristic call when a goal is scored during a game, shouting ‘Gooooooaaaaaaaall!’ Born in Argentina, soccer is a big part of his life in bhis native country.
“It’s part of the culture and kids grow up with it,” he said. “You see the images of kids on the street corner kicking the ball around.”
Many soccer enthusiasts argue that it may not be embedded in American children because they have a variety of other sports to choose from.
“When I grew up in Argentina as a youngster, other sports weren’t reachable,” said Cantor. “So you play soccer. Here, kids grow up playing Little League, not soccer. The MLS is not as powerful as the NBA, and any kid will tell you, I want to be like LeBron James or some NFL player of MLB player.”
Europe also draws the top soccer players. The superstars of soccer are players based in other countries, like Ronaldinho from Brazil, and David Beckham and Frank Lampard from England.
“We just don’t have the big players to draw the crowds,” said Cantor. “We need to have strong icons of American soccer for kids to look to follow like they have in Europe with Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo.”
But not even big name players have proved to save soccer in the U.S. In an effort to boost soccer’s popularity, the MLS’ LA Galaxy brought in superstar David Beckham in 2007. While many argue that his spot on the team helped with attendance, TV ratings, and the overall perception of the sport, many argue that he is leaving the MLS in pretty much the same way as he joined it.
While soccer does not enjoy the same popularity in the United States as it does in other parts of the world, many involved in the soccer world believe that it’s on the rise. The U.S. Youth Soccer League is the largest sports organization in the United States and has 3.2 million registered players today. Many MLS teams are proving that soccer could have a future here also. The Seattle Sounders played their first game on March 19 and sold out not only that game but many after it.
Cantor believes the media has played an integral part in soccer’s development in the U.S. Americans have access to more international games than anyone else in the world and he is always surprised by how many non-Hispanic viewers tune in to his games that are broadcasted in Spanish.
Neil Buethe, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Communications, argues that U.S. soccer is starting to develop more talented players that will in turn lead to a more popular soccer program in the U.S.
“The level of soccer has definitely improved and people in Europe have come to realize we’re improving,” he said.
While Harkes agrees that soccer has come a long way, he believes there are still elements stunting soccer’s growth in the U.S.
“Our game is not at the current level of play,” he said. “We’re still a young league and with the salary cap [in the MLS] we can’t get the best players.”
A member of the media himself, Harkes still criticizes his colleagues for not giving soccer the coverage it deserves.
“Even today I grab the paper, and there’s nothing in the paper about the game tonight.” he said. “We’re always struggling to get the game exposed. The media plays a huge part and not only how they cover it, but how they present the game.”
While soccer may be the world’s sport, many see soccer as America’s sport in the future.
“As the league grows, awareness will grow in the next generation,” Cantor said. “I think the future is bright for soccer.”