Soccer growing at its own pace in U.S.

Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said the World Cup helps promote Americans' interest in Major League Soccer.
Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said the World Cup helps promote Americans' interest in Major League Soccer. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: July 02, 2014

Asking whether the United States is now a "soccer nation," which has become a timely if peculiar fascination during the excitement of the World Cup, is like asking if the U.S. is a "broccoli nation."

Soccer is consumed here regularly; fervidly by some, occasionally by others, and not at all by those who simply don't care for it. For the most part in this country - with the notable exception of the NFL - that's no different than any other sport.

The United States has many basketball fans and hockey fans, but none of them feel it necessary to hear that this is a "basketball nation" or "hockey nation." The most passionate soccer fans crave that affirmation, however, and perhaps you can't blame them after enduring all these decades of second-class status.

It is that neediness that bothers non-soccer fans, though, and leads them to say stupid things about soccer's less-appealing facets - the petty fakery of players trying to draw a foul call is a particular target - while choosing to ignore the ballhandling artistry or the exquisite tension of a close, important match.

The real truth about soccer's place in the pecking order of sports in the United States is that it won't change much - no matter how deeply the national team, which plays a round-of-16 match Tuesday afternoon against Belgium, might advance in the World Cup.

So far, the television ratings have been excellent, but they also were great for the Women's World Cup in 1999, the tournament that heralded the apparent arrival of women's soccer in this country. All the attempts at domestic professional leagues that were borne of that arrival have failed, however.

It could be that casual consumers of soccer in the United States enjoy a spectacle, a major tournament, in the same way that the quadrennial consumers of some Olympic sports would never watch them on a daily basis.

Major League Soccer, the men's league that was organized after the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, has shown better legs than that, though, and has settled into a solid niche. The league attracts decent crowds to mostly soccer-specific stadiums but doesn't do very well on television. The Union, now in their fifth season, are fairly typical. The team draws an average of 18,000 to PPL Park in Chester, a figure that has maintained a nearly flat line for the last four years.

The Union fans love the game and they show up despite having witnessed a playoff berth in only one season, and teams that finished 14th, 15th, and 14th overall in the others. This season, the Union have four wins, seven losses, and six draws and are again 14th in the overall standings.

Nick Sakiewicz, the CEO and operating partner of the Union, is a former goalkeeper and has been a soccer executive for most of his adult life. This has made him a patient man. And while the attention given the World Cup is good for business, he feels business will keep heading in the right direction, anyway.

"The way I look at it, this is probably a 50-year time cycle in the growth of the sport, and we're about 30 years in," Sakiewicz said. "As we go through the time cycle, things are going to accelerate. We did a slow burn in the 1980s and 1990s and then picked up speed in the first decade of the 21st century. I'm sensing, partially based on this World Cup, that the next 10 years will be very good."

The World Cup, especially if the United States could advance another round - or even two! - is good for the reputation of the MLS, which has 10 players on Team USA's 23-man roster and had seven among the starting lineup for the team's final group match against Germany. That might not turn the large cadre of soccer "purists" in this country who watch only foreign leagues into ticket-buyers, but it is an improvement from 2010 when only four MLS players were selected.

"Our guys are realizing that the league here is among the top 10 in the world. And it's better to be playing here than sitting on the bench on a top-five team in the world," Sakiewicz said. "Jurgen [Klinsmann, the U.S. coach,] has said that playing week in and week out for a club is what gives players the best chance of making the team."

That team squares off with its history on Tuesday afternoon. A win over Belgium, which is gimpy and a bit patchwork at the defensive end of the field, is not an impossible task and would move the United States into the quarterfinals, which it has reached only once in the modern annals of the tournament. Another win, likely having to come against Argentina, would lift the U.S. team into very thin air indeed. And the ratings wouldn't be bad, either.

But that's rushing things, which soccer fans like to do. The matches will arrive when they are scheduled, just as the sport will itself. In fact, it's already here, consumed and enjoyed and vibrant and growing.

It just doesn't matter if everyone doesn't like broccoli yet.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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