The Soccer Boom is Really Coming This Time

(published July 14, 2011)

The U.S. women advanced to the World Cup final Wednesday, defeating France 3-1 in an uncontroversial and convincing fashion.

This came on the heels of a dramatic, outlandish victory over Brazil on Sunday, a game that slavishly obeyed the screenwriter’s template of Initial Incident (Brazil’s own-goal by Daiane), Character Development (rest of the first half), Establishment of Villain (the referee awarding the penalty kick do-over), Escalating Peril (having to play 10 on 11; Marta’s goal in extra time), Near Redemption (U.S. scoring chances in the final minutes), Dramatic Villainous Twist (Erika’s stretcher ride and miracle recovery), Redemption and Dramatic Irony (Rapinoe’s cross and Wambach’s header in stoppage time created by Erika’s flop), and Final Triumph With Bonus Resonance of Initial Incident (Solo’s save on Daiane’s kick in shootout).

It was as compelling a sporting event as anyone could ask for, and those who had better things to do on a summer Sunday undoubtedly heard about it from babbling sports fan friends.  You didn’t have to care about soccer – or women’s sports, particularly – to be wowed by it.   And it took place on the twelfth anniversary of the previous high-water mark for women’s soccer in the U.S., Brandi Chastain’s overexposed 1999 celebration of her World Cup-winning penalty kick.

The ’99 World Cup final was supposed to be the game that launched a thousand kicks.  It led to memorable magazine covers and an American professional women’s league, and was hailed as an important moment for the empowerment of girls in sports.  It was the culmination and validation of the Title IX generation, and an all-out American embrace of soccer was sure to follow.

It didn’t.  The WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association) lasted three seasons.  The U.S. women’s team lost in the semifinals of the next two World Cups, 0-3 to Germany in Oregon in 2003 and 0-4 to Brazil in China in 2007.

But certainly this time will be different.  The ’99 Cup win was drowned in sociological significance.  The beauty of the reaction in 2011 is that it’s being treated as a sporting event, nothing more or less.

The people who watch Sunday’s final between the U.S. and Japan will surely not just be tuning in because Americans like to watch Americans win.  It won’t be like the quadrennial embrace of sports like short-track skating, gymnastics, or half-pipe at the Olympics.

It’s time, because a generation that grew up playing youth soccer has children of its own, playing and enjoying this great world sport.  That makes this moment totally different from the boost that was supposed to follow Landon Donovan’s unforgettable miracle goal in South Africa against Algeria in 2010.

Professional soccer in the U.S. is obviously ready to grow beyond MLS’s 20,000-capacity stadiums that provide an intimate experience for its fans, and draw NFL-sized crowds in the biggest bowls in the land.  This boom will be unlike the one that failed to follow the 2007 American arrival of global superstar David Beckham, a sure-fire publicity boon for the league.

Or the ’94 World Cup on American soil.

Or the high-scoring, fast-action, crowd-pleasing indoor version of the sport played in the Major Indoor Soccer League in the 1980s.

Or the unprecedented world all-star team featuring Pele, Chinaglia, and Beckenbauer that was assembled by the Cosmos in the late 1970s.

Or the big national-TV contract given to the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the three-network universe of the 1960s, looking to capitalize on American interest in England’s 1966 World Cup victory.

The soccer boom has been coming for a long time.  The sport was once dismissed as a game for foreigners in short pants, with too little action to hold the interest of American television audiences.  We didn’t understand it, we didn’t much want to see it, and our players weren’t very good.

Now?  Now the time is right.  The soccer boom is coming.

Unless it’s already here, and this is what it looks like.









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