The Actual Future of American Soccer

As I drove home this afternoon, the words in my head were coming out of my speakers. Jorge Sedano was talking on SVP and Russillo about where we are and where we're going with soccer in America. The day after USA's loss in the World Cup, that was the lead on most talk shows in America. Most of the takes quite frankly had nothing to with the future of American soccer. They had to do with how much the given host didn't care.

To those people, there is nothing those of us who do care can do. I categorize myself in the "care" group not because I have some lifelong love affair with soccer. Nor do I get up on weekend mornings and watch European soccer (yet). However it's the number one sport in the world and it's undeniably growing in this country and I'd very much like to see where it goes.

Podcast: ESPN NBA Insider and lifelong soccer fan Amin Elhassan and I discuss the future of American soccer.

Many of the "get off my lawn" types who are poo-poo'ing the USA's result in the World Cup and screaming how much they don't care point to the passionate soccer crowd who's been telling them soccer is coming for 25 years. Two things:

1) There is no worse way to express how little you care than talking about a topic non-stop. If you don't care, then don't care. Just stop talking.

2) Soccer is here.

It is not dominating. It won't take over the NFL. However the NHL and depending on who you ask, even Major League Baseball might soon fall behind nationwide interest in soccer. There are definitely pockets of the country where it already has and those pockets might be expanding. There are statistics that say soccer is more popular amongst teenagers than baseball, as tweeter Bobby alludes to here:
Amongst my generation, which will soon be the money generation every company in this country is after, soccer is apart of our sporting culture. It just has an odd place. MLS's following is growing at a very solid, but not rapid pace. The morning EPL games are watched by a higher percentage of people than you'd think, but a 7:30 am start on the east coast means 4:30 am out west, so how many people are watching those games live? However the national teams (yes teams, women included) are must-watch television.

For the women it's really Olympics and World Cup only, but you could easily make the argument that the single biggest star in American soccer is Alex Morgan. It's harder to make that argument the day after Tim Howard reached American legend status, but Morgan's in more ads in this country year round than anybody on the men's national team.

When the men play though, no matter the meaning of the game, people are watching. Not the record numbers that ESPN garnered during the world cup, but people nonetheless. It's taken awhile, but soccer is here.

The "it's taken awhile" part is what the problem is for some. They refuse to recognize the revolution because it didn't happen overnight. Maybe revolution isn't even the right word. These things take time and that's exactly what Sedano eloquently expressed today and as my friend John Nolan poignantly points out here:

So what now?

The Olympics are the next major tournament, but Olympic soccer is tricky and that's hard for the American sports fan to understand, especially post-dream team era. It's primarily an under-23 tournament (each team gets a few players over that age limit) so many of the names the average fan just learned won't be present for it. Most world soccer powers don't have stellar records. That said, many of the young guns who made an impact will. Deandre Yedlin was electrifying. He's 20. Julian Green's first touch was a goal that gave the US last minute hope. He's 19. The list goes on, and a big time American run could be a huge next step in part because most American's don't understand and quite frankly don't care about the U-23 implications.

Looking at the bigger picture though, there is a major problem for soccer in America that is worthy of discussion. In fact it should be at the center of discussion. It's going to take a person with much more knowledge than me to figure out the solution, but when I solicited tweets on the purposely generic topic of "the future of American soccer," it was one of the first responses I got from my co-worker Tyler Sloan.

What is best for the US National Team and what is best for MLS are in direct conflict.

Jurgen Klinsmann has said time and time again that he wants his players playing in Europe against the best competition. The reason is simple. There's no better way to get better. However the best Americans playing in Europe means the MLS is a minor league, even if it is AAA.

The ideal solution is that the world's best (American born or otherwise) flood MLS and it becomes another top tier league along with the English Premiere League, Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga and Italy's Serie A.

I think the best bet for that to happen is to start by convincing the best South American players that the US is a better stop for them than Europe. Right now those players are going to Europe. If you can convince say, Colombia's James Rodriguez (currently playing in France) that he doesn't need to switch hemispheres, we can get somewhere.

Clearly the best solution long term for American soccer is for the American league to be top notch. It's the first step in the cycle that ends with the USA being a world soccer power. A better American league leads to more American interest which leads to more of our best athletes choosing soccer. More of our best athletes choosing soccer means we're better at soccer. Duh.

Us being better at soccer means we have a better league and the cycle continues until good becomes great and we go from "can compete with anyone on a given night" to "expect to win."

The question to which I don't have the answer is how do we get there? Is the best short term step for our best to be playing against the better competition in Europe? When does the switch then happen where they need to come back to America?

Reality of life also enters the conversation. Clint Dempsey was a legitimately good player in the EPL for years before deciding to come back to the states and play for Seattle. Klinsmann wasn't happy about his decision, and understandably so. In a piece for ESPN, Dempsey explained the move had a lot to do with wanting to raise his family in the United States. That's hard logic to argue.

I don't know what the solution is, but I do know this is the conversation that smart people should be having. Whether or not there's interest and "does soccer matter?" isn't.

That conversation is pointless. As self-important as we think we are in the media, we're reliant on what fans want. We don't control the conversation. They do. We talk about what fans want. We don't talk about Lebron James, Johnny Manziel and other stars every day because we want to. We do it because research tells us that when we do, you watch and listen.

So if soccer numbers continue to rise and interest continues to grow, it becomes a part of the discussion more than once every four years. The conversation will shift from whether people are interested to actual discussion of what's going on like other sports.

Soccer isn't going to be #1 anytime soon and probably won't be in my lifetime, but that's okay. Only one thing can be number one. Do we talk about basketball like we currently talk about soccer because it's not football? Of course not. The goal shouldn't be domination. It should be participation, as in being a part of the regular conversation.

The game's growth is undeniable. We need patience though, and in the current microwave society, we have none of it. So instead we get people screaming how much they don't care and that that soccer will never matter and blah blah blah.

One of the other questions that does have merit is will this change anything in the short term? Can MLS and soccer in general get a boost from this World Cup? People asked the same question about the women's game after the 2011 World Cup. The WPS had historic attendance that summer. And then folded.

This is different though, as the infrastructure of the men's game worldwide as sturdy as could be. I know personally I will watch more. I've used this World Cup to learn more about the biggest stars in the game and I fully plan on watching them when they return to their clubs. I'll be more inclined to watch an MLS game and will certainly tune in for the weekend morning EPL matches. Will that win my TV over a basketball or football game? No, but that doesn't mean there hasn't been progress.

Patience, like soccer is something we're not great at in this country. Unlike patience though, at least soccer is trending in the right direction.