US still awaits its Pele, but soccer gains foothold

It is no secret that America has not yet had its soccer revolution.

From the moment that Pele made his first appearance as a member of the New York Cosmos in 1975, America has been waiting. Surely someday, those legions of hyperkinetic tots swarming over local soccer fields would grow up to become America's first generation of soccer heros.

The country is still waiting. Yet this World Cup finds soccer in America at a very different place than it was a generation ago. While most Americans may well greet their national team's World Cup match Monday against the Czech Republic with a shrug, there is every indication that soccer is at last finding a toehold in the United States.

On the field, the US has qualified for four consecutive World Cups - after missing out from 1950 to 1990 - and has this year produced undoubtedly the most talented squad in its history. Off the field, new soccer-specific stadiums and 24-hour soccer TV channels have made the sport more prevalent - and popular - than ever.

Together, these threads of growth do not point to a sport ready to overthrow America's established sporting order, but rather one that is moving from the infant steps that followed the 1994 World Cup here into a more assured adolescence.

"A lot of false expectations led to the perception of treading water, when in fact the sport is making methodical progress," says David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach, Calif.

The fact that America's top professional soccer league has found a model to survive - and even expand - is no small thing. Its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, which was responsible for the arrival of Pele, spent itself into oblivion in the 1970s and early '80s trying to attract the best international stars. With more modest aims, Major League Soccer (MLS), which began in 1996, has found it can turn a profit if it builds smaller, soccer-specific stadiums, allowing teams to limit demand, raise prices, and control revenue from parking and concessions.

At the same time, the rise of the Internet has allowed fans to connect with the premier leagues in Europe. When several top European teams toured the United States in the summer of 2003, they played seven games before an average crowd of nearly 52,634. Two soccer-only channels - FOX Soccer Channel and Gol TV - have emerged on many cable systems, and Break.com, a website that shows video clips, reports that soccer is the most searched-for sport among Americans on the site.

Members of the national team now in Germany say they, too, have felt the change. "From my first trips with the national team in 1989, it's been an astronomical change in the game in America," says goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who plays his club soccer for Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany. "If we continue the good steady growth we've had over the last 15, 20 years, I think the sport will be in a good position in ... 2015."

"You don't want a spike," he adds. "You want to have it nice and steady."

The statistics from Break.com give some sense of where the growth has come. Its users are mostly young males who live in and around the urban centers of the East and West Coast. Soccer has not yet stormed the heartland. Even so, the legendary Spanish team Real Madrid recently announced that it would play an exhibition in Salt Lake City.

"Ten years ago, soccer in Utah didn't exist," says Paul Kennedy of Soccer America magazine.

Moreover, marketers and networks are increasingly seeing soccer as a profitable venture. "It's not easy because it is a very crowded [sports] marketplace," says Scott Guglielmino, vice president of programming for ESPN, which has bought the rights for the 2006, 2010, and 2014 World Cups along with its parent network, ABC. But the fact that the sport is "consistently building," he adds, "indicates that it is something that we want to be a part of."

In a country rather attached to its superpower status, "consistently building" hardly stirs the blood, though. Not surprisingly, it was the novelty of a 14-year-old Freddy Adu joining MLS two years ago that briefly broke through America's typical indifference. The story was not solely his youth, but also the fact that, for the first time, here was a player with the potential to be mentioned among the best players in the world.

For the moment, that conversation involves only those names that stumble - like a blindfolded gymnast - off the American tongue: Ronaldinho, Shevchenko, Ibrahimovic. At 17, Adu has not yet shown the spark that made him a target for storied European clubs like Inter Milan. He was not chosen for the national team in this year's World Cup.

Yet in just getting this far, he is proof that producing an American Pele requires more than simply putting kids in cleats every Saturday afternoon. The world's top soccer nations are nothing less than factories, finding the best talent at elementary-school ages and grooming them in professional soccer academies.

For the first time, America is starting to do the same. Adu spent much of his youth at a sports academy in Florida before moving on to his first professional contract at 14. The fact that these opportunities even exist illustrates the progress American soccer has made during the past decade. The fact that Adu remains an exception shows how far it still has to go.

For its part, MLS has largely abandoned its early attempts to buy international stars, focusing instead on developing young American talent like Adu. It's a more patient path, but one that players say will eventually pay off. "I don't think anybody is fooled by the fact that we don't have players playing significant roles in the top teams in the world," says Eddie Lewis, a defender for the US team. "I think we'll be there, but the reality is, it's going to take a little bit of time."

On some levels, MLS's commitment to US talent is already paying dividends. It is credited with helping to create what some call America's "golden generation" - this core of players that has been ranked as high as No. 5 in the world, and was one goal away from advancing to the 2002 World Cup semifinals.

This year, nine of the 23 players on the World Cup squad left college early or skipped it entirely to play in MLS. And among the players left off the team was MLS's two-time leading goal scorer and reigning Most Valuable Player, pointing to a deeper talent pool than ever before.

Says Eric Wynalda, who played in three World Cups for the United States before retiring: "If that isn't progress, then I don't know what is."

US in the World Cup

1990
Lost to Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Austria in the first round.

1994
Beat Colombia, lost to Romania, tied Switzerland. Advanced to second round, but lost to Brazil.

1998
Lost to Germany and Iran; tied with Yugoslavia. Finished last in the tournament.

2002
Beat Portugal, lost to Poland, tied host Korea. Beat Mexico in the second round. Lost to Germany in the quarterfinals.

2006
US vs. Czech Republic, 11:55 a.m. Monday - ESPN2

US vs. Italy 9 a.m., Saturday, June 17 - ABC

US vs. Ghana 10 a.m., June 22 - ESPN

(All times Eastern Daylight Time)

Source: FIFA, ESPN

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