America is said to have three big sports: baseball, basketball, and football, but could a fourth big sport be emerging? Soccer is on the rise in America. According to Gallop, in 1995 only one percent of Americans considered soccer their favorite sport. Now in 2019, seven percent of Americans consider soccer their favorite sport. So what has created soccer’s rise in popularity? It all started in 1994 when the FIFA World Cup was held in America. The event was a huge hit, boasting a total of 3.57 million spectators. The 1994 World Cup still holds the all time record for attendance. A short two years later the first Major League Soccer soccer game was held on April 3, 1996. In the MLS’ first season, the league had just ten teams. The first season opened to a warm reaction from the public, with the total attendance for the entire season being just under 2.8 million. Shortly following the MLS’ start, the 1999 Women’s World Cup was being held in the United States, once again bringing the game to America at a high caliber. The American women would go on to win the tournament. The final game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California held a crazy, 90,185 fans.
Now, in the 2019 season, the MLS has a total of 8.7 million spectators and 28 teams located across the nation. One of these teams is Portland’s very own team, the Timbers, an MLS team that has thrived. The Timbers have transformed the citizens of Portland into soccer loving fans. Franklin’s state winning soccer coach Ty Kovatch believes that soccer was bound to succeed; “Portland is a soccer town, so I think there is a natural opportunity for soccer to attract attention when you have success.” In 2015 the Timbers won the MLS cup just six seasons after the team was formed in 2009.
Part of the MLS’ growth has been in the form of expansion teams like the Timbers. Expansion teams are all new teams, usually added in cities who haven’t hosted teams in the league before. Since 2010 the league has added eight new teams, and the MLS isn’t stopping there. By 2022, four more new teams will be added in Charlotte, Miami, Nashville, and Austin. Many medium sized cities see having a soccer team as an opportunity for recognition and an economic boost. Detroit, Sacramento, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Antonio, Phoenix, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Indianapolis are all cities pleading their case to be the MLS’ 30th team. However what the MLS has plenty of in quantity, it lacks in quality.
Despite the growth of the MLS, the quality of play and players is still considered by many to be lesser compared to European soccer. The MLS has been trying to change this for many years by attracting, European legends to play in America. Recently, Swedish striker Zlaten Ibrahimovic and English midfielder Wayne Rooney have made a move to the United States. These moves create buzz, and attract fans from all over the world. Regardless of the positive effect the European players have, they still can’t entirely alter the quality of play. Ty Kovatch believes that the youth system could be to blame: “The player development system is still in an early phase, as is the growth of interest in soccer in America.”
Even with the MLS’ and World Cup success, one of the main reasons for soccer’s growth has to be its huge youth following. According to Gallops’ sports polls, twelve percent of minors in the United States consider soccer to be their favorite sport. Soccer is a simple, easy to understand game; this makes it perfect for young athletes. Coach Kovatch says soccer is a great sport because “It’s such an accessible game, meaning there are many levels of play that people can participate in.” Many children will even start playing soccer and venture out to other sports.
Despite soccer being a great grassroots sport, youth soccer is currently on the decline. Youth sport participation in general is on the decline, however soccer has shown big losses as the total number of youth soccer participants has dropped 14 percent according to a New York Times published in 2018. Despite the supposed decline, Coach Kovatch says he’s seen “a steady increase in soccer at Franklin.” Coach Kovatch also believes that right now youth soccer is better than it has ever been. “When I was a player, my coaches were my mom who never played a sport, then a former football player… Today our young players are getting much higher quality coaching at younger ages, which will translate to higher quality players over time.”
As of now soccer looks bright, and American youth are bigger soccer fans than ever before. Coach Kovatch is very confident on the outlook of soccer in the United States: “I think soccer will be the most popular sport in America in the next twenty years as this generation of players grows up to have families of their own and become coaches.” Whether or not soccer will become America’s favorite sport is unknown, but one thing is for sure—soccer is on the rise.