Since the U.S. national team shocked the world in its run to the Confederations Cup Final, there has been increased debate throughout the sports world as to whether or not soccer will ever become as popular in America as it is throughout the rest of the world.
Before we get into the reasons why soccer will never break through the "Big 4" American sports barrier, let me just say that soccer is a great sport, truly the beautiful game, and that the integration of the United States into the soccer-loving community could only be a positive thing. But as people continue to weigh the benefit of increased interest in soccer in the States, the fact remains that professional soccer will never be popular in the U.S. on the same scale that it is globally, and it's a shame.
One of the biggest things working against the growth of soccer in the U.S. is the inability to create a professional league that produces star-quality talent and interest from average Americans. Both the failure of the NASL and the fruitless venture that is the MLS are a testament to three things:
1) Americans are aware of the wide gap in talent between the MLS and the European clubs that they see on TV in tournaments such as the Champions League, as well as what they see in International play.
2) The MLS will never be able to attract the big name players because of it's lack of revenue. When you see players in Europe getting paid over 10 million dollars per year, asis set to make in his publicized transfer from English powerhouse Manchester United to Spanish club Real Madrid, you realize just how far away the MLS is from fielding teams that can compete with the talent on European teams. The top international players we do get come in the twilight of their careers, and the experiences of Pele and prove that one man cannot save an entire league. While there is hope that homegrown stars will emerge as soccer is becoming a more popular sport for kids to play in America, the fact is that many of the best American athletes will be drawn to sports such as basketball, baseball, and American football. Even then, the players who do emerge as bright young stars are drawn to Europe where they offer a bigger stage and a bigger salary.
3) Many Americans are just downright stubborn when it comes to opening up to the idea of embracing a new sport. Traditionally the Big 4 have been baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. Soccer trying to compete with these sports is like a small mom-and-pop store trying to compete with Wal-Mart. It's not that the product is worse, they just don't have the same resources to get that product out. And in a country that embraces violence in the culture like no other, people end up labeling soccer as "a sport for sissies" because it doesn't contain the same life-shortening hits as sports like football. In one of the unfortunate ironies of this whole situation, many just can't seem to accept that a sport known internationally as football does not equate in any way, shape, or form to the football they are used to, and therefore it must be worse. Call it arrogant, call it ignorant, call it what you may, but these people are still the audience you have to win over if you want soccer to be embraced by the masses in the U.S. of A. This does not mean you have to change the product, it just means that you have to field a product that is on par with the one distributed in Europe, the one that people see when they watch ESPN at 11 in the morning and are in awe of how skilled these athletes really are.
In one of the more interesting moves the MLS has made, many of the top European clubs such as Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter Milan, and others will be touring the U.S. and playing matches throughout the country in the "Summer of Soccer". While this will undoubtedly garner media attention and bring out the fans, we'll have to wait and see if it translates to an increase in public interest in the MLS.
The Confederations Cup performance rekindled a discussion that has been going on for the last 40 years about soccer in America, but one of the weirdest things about the whole situation is the huge difference between international soccer and professional soccer in the States. While the international team has made huge strides and continues to gain respect for the growth of talent within the American soccer community, the professional leagues that have tried to sell themselves to an American audience are still sub-par. As the Confederations Cup showed, Americans are looking for a reason to get excited about soccer, and the international team is giving them a reason to believe. Unfortunately it appears that professional soccer within the United States still has a long way to go before its teams can compete with the best in the world, and they will continue to fight an uphill battle that they do not stand a good chance of winning, a battle that undermines the growth of the beautiful game in a market that desperately wants to embrace it.