Outside the United States, soccer (or football as it is known everywhere else) is the most popular sport in the world. But that popularity has never translated to the US. In the US, soccer has always been a sport that kids play, but has never reached mainstream popularity on the adult stage. For most sports fans in the US, soccer has always been too boring or too low scoring. They don’t understand the rules, and they don’t understand why it is so popular everywhere else. In their minds, soccer was the world’s sport, but it would never be America’s sport. That type of thinking is starting to change, if only just a little bit.
Over the past couple of years, soccer has really started to grow in the US. Major League Soccer’s attendance has been on the rise over the past four years. The league has been expanding and many of the teams have now built soccer specific stadiums. In the summer of 2009, the US team participated in the Confederation’s Cup tournament. After making it into the semifinal round, the US defeated Spain who at the time was the #1 team in the world. After taking a 2-0 lead the US fell to defeat to Brazil in the finals. The run to the finals intrigued many people in the states and almost 4 million peopled watched this final match. This was the largest audience ever for the US team in a non-World Cup match.
The latest success for soccer in the United States came from the 2010 World Cup. The US team progressed out of group stage in the competition before being defeated in the round of 16. Although this was not the farthest the US has ever progressed at the tournament, the excitement in the US was far greater than it had ever been before.
The first match of the tournament for the United States was against soccer super power England. Coming into the tournament, England was one of the teams that experts thought had a shot at winning the World Cup. That Saturday afternoon over 16.7 million people in the US tuned in to watch the US draw with England 1-1.
The next US match was against Slovenia. For this match, the US fought back for a 2-2 draw in dramatic fashion. For a match held on a Friday morning, ESPN set a record for the most people ever watching a soccer match on their station. And the controversial ending only heightened the amount of exposure that the US team was receiving by the main steam US media.
The final match of the group stage was held five days later against Algeria. Once again, on a weekday morning, ESPN broke the record set just a few days earlier with the most people ever watching a match on their network. Social networks like Twitter flooded with remarks as Landon Donovan scored a goal in stoppage time to earn the US a win.
By this point, soccer was everywhere, from the front page of the New York Times to every water cooler around the country. Everyone was talking about soccer. Celebrities were wearing US soccer jerseys and rock bands were writing songs about the team.
The US had won their group and was moving on to play Ghana. This match (which the US lost 2-1) set another viewing record in the United States. It was viewed by a total of almost 19 million viewers. This was the most watch match ever for a US men’s team. In comparison, the 2008 World Series only averaged 13.7 million viewers over the 5 game series.
Even though the US was not able to get past Ghana, the sport itself had arrived in the consciousness of the country. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard have become household names. The country became invested with these players. The next time people see these players on TV, they will stop and watch them play. Soccer might still not be “America’s Sport”, but it is much closer than it has ever been before.