By Ridge Mahoney
Something Landon Donovan said in a February interview got me to thinking about what effect the U.S. team's performance in the 2010 World Cup might have on MLS.
Despite strong World Cup TV ratings, MLS numbers haven’t changed. Yet the league keeps adding teams in large markets, building stadiums, and inching toward a foothold in a country mostly indifferent if not disdainful to its professional soccer league. And, it seems, despite the development of more programs to steer young elite players away from college soccer, the quality of those college players is improving. Despite a brand of soccer inferior to many alternatives available on television, there’s more media coverage than ever before.
The influx of players from college programs at schools like Akron, Michigan, California, Oregon State and other schools not as renowned as their counterparts such as Indiana, Wake Forest and Maryland is certainly the major factor, as is the experience many of those players gain from U.S. Soccer’s developmental programs and youth national teams.
Yet a trickle-down effect from the U.S. team’s performances at major competitions has also played a role and not just on the field, but in the stands. Gone are the days when most MLS crowds were either distracted or stoic; in many cities, not just the recent expansion hotshots, more people are a lot more into it. Instead of a few dozen colorful, rowdy whackos sprinkled amongst the moderately interested, fans in the hundreds or even the thousands wear the same colors, wave the same flags, and sing the same chants.
“When I speak about the World Cup last summer, what we were able to do, I hear people say, ‘Well then how come MLS attendance didn’t go up after the World Cup?’” said Donovan. “The reality is that you may gain a few fans in the short-term, but in the long-term what we did is inspired a lot of young kids who one day may choose soccer instead of volleyball or basketball or football, because they want to be the next Clint Dempsey or the next Tim Howard. We probably also inspired some kids who never kicked a soccer ball who think they could be the next Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley.
“Over the course of time, that’s how you build a fan base, that’s how you develop maybe one or two world-class players from all these kids who are playing soccer. You develop a lot more coaches, you develop a lot more people who are just passionate about the game, and they pass that down to their kids. It’s a cycle of passion for our sport that just builds, and the test will be in 20, 30, or 40 years from now.
“It’s a credit to how far we’ve come. It’s a credit to the coaching and a credit to the system, for sure.”
Both “the coaching” and “the system” have taken a lot of heat in this country and there’s no question there needs to be upgrading and streamlining of both. The recent failure of the U.S. U-20s to qualify for the world championships has triggered a fresh round of criticism and cost head coach Thomas Rongen his job, but a glance around MLS reveals how our young players compare to those from other countries.
The caliber of young foreign players, some in their teens, being signed by MLS teams has been overshadowed by coverage of Homegrown products, but the foreign youngsters usually have more experience and get into the lineup much more quickly. I’ve no idea how good Chicago’s recent signing, Cristian Nazarit, will turn out to be, but at age 20 he’s already played more than 40 first-team games and according to information released by the Fire, scored 16 goals.
Regardless of the drawbacks and benefits of Colombian soccer, and there are certainly many of both, imbued in that culture is intense passion for the game at all levels. It drives players to excel, fans to attend, owners to spend, and teams domestic and abroad to mine the best talent. A player who makes it as a pro might have been coached and tutored and mentored more than a dozen people, all of them zealous devotees of the game, and advised and assisted by many others.
When MLS and U.S. Soccer refine and revise their programs to find and cultivate the talented players who possess the greatest will to succeed, the game in this country will rise to unprecedented heights. We can’t replicate the feeling and emotion in Colombia nor any other country, we need to grow our own, and one of the necessary ingredients is time.