After reaching the round of 16 in 2010, fans hoped the U.S. would duplicate, or even surpass, its exploits from four years ago. But then the U.S. was put into the so-called “Group of Death” with Germany, Ghana and Portugal and weren’t given much of a chance to survive.
That wasn’t the case, however.
A 2-1 victory over Ghana excited the nation heading into a matchup with Portugal, where a victory would assure the U.S. of a berth in the round of 16. Instead, they settled for a tie, and eventually advanced on a tiebreaker, before ultimately bowing out with a 2-1 loss to Belgium.
Millions of Americans have watched the action unfold in Brazil, and while the U.S. may be done, soccer isn’t done in the U.S.
“I think that any exposure and attention for the game is great and positive, and I think that soccer will continue to grow in the United States,” Hillgrove boys coach Heath Merrill said.
This isn’t a new phenomenon in the U.S. Soccer’s popularity has grown during each World Cup since the United States last hosted the event in 1994. Major League Soccer was created in ’96, and the league has grown ever since, now sitting at 19 teams.
Three more clubs will join MLS between 2015 and ’17, including one in Atlanta.
“It’s not just this World Cup, it’s every World Cup,” Harrison boys coach Jonathan Gross said. “I grew up in the ’80s, and if you played soccer in the ’80s, you had to convince people that you were an athlete because no one really understood your sport or had respect for it.
“When (the U.S.) hosted the World Cup in 1994, that was really the jumping-off point, and what you tend to see is, in every World Cup, there’s been a huge surge in popularity, and it’s a little bit bigger every time. This World Cup’s been the biggest ratings ESPN’s ever had (for soccer), and everyone is talking about it. Of course, the popularity recedes once the World Cup’s gone, and as soon as it ends, they’ll be some people who don’t watch soccer for four years.
“But you’ll always get some new people into the game because of it, and you can see the enthusiasm with younger kids. They’re watching these superstars on television, and seeing how the game is played at the highest level, and it brings more people into the game and more fans. Americans love to be able to get behind the national team, and soccer is such a great avenue for that.”
Merrill noticed a different attitude among the participants in a recent camp of his.
“We just finished my camp for rising fifth- through ninth-graders and I feel like more kids are definitely aware. Not only of the World Cup, but kids are more tied into the English Premier League or the Champions League as well,” he said. “With television and social media and all of that stuff, it’s made soccer grow a lot. A lot of kids can name players and teams that are overseas, which really didn’t happen as much for me growing up, because it hardly played on ESPN.
“I’ve seen all of the records for viewing attendance, and that’s been awesome. I could definitely see this week how all the kids could tell you all the U.S. players, and ESPN has done a better job of giving it more air time. From the local spin, I can see that the kids have a broader perspective of the whole thing.”
According to Walton boys coach Bruce Wade, the impact of the World Cup has given soccer players aspirations to play in MLS, Europe and for future U.S. national teams, much like football players in the NFL, basketball players to the NBA and baseball players to Major League Baseball.
“Young players have something to look forward to with MLS and World Cup,” Wade said. “They can play here and in other countries with guys like (U.S. goalkeeper) Tim Howard and (midfielder) Michael Bradley to look up to.”
Gross understands first-hand how the World Cup has impacted the growth of soccer.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter who plays the game, and just watching it with her was really a great experience,” he said. “We’ve been outside at 7 to 8 o’clock at night every night just playing soccer since the World Cup started. She watches the games with me and wants to go out into the backyard and play, or she wants me to teach her how to do something. That all just started over the past couple of weeks with the World Cup.
“She’ll see a player do a certain move, or shoot the ball a certain way, and she’ll try to duplicate that. I’m sure the same things are happening with other kids. I think it’s happening with kids all over the country. I’ll drive around the neighborhood and see kids playing pick-up soccer when, 20 or 25 years ago, that would have been pick-up football or baseball, for sure.
“The media attention and viewing parties is raising the awareness of the sport to a whole other level. It’s really beneficial.”