A sea change for soccer in the U.S.?

August, 14, 2009

"I have a crush on U.S. soccer." -- Colin Cowherd

When trying to decide what to write about for my first blog, the obvious choice was a review of Wednesday's U.S.-Mexico game and the U.S. team's 2-1 loss. However, a look back at the national team's continued struggles in Mexico City seemed unnecessary. By the time you read this the talking points will be exhausted (the lack of possession by the U.S., subpar officiating, the intimidation factor of Azteca) and fans will have moved ahead to thinking about the team's next World Cup qualifier against El Salvador on Sept. 5 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic). Instead, I wish to take a look at how much excitement and attention continue to surround U.S. soccer after an incredible summer that has led many casual sports fans to jump on the bandwagon as the 2010 World Cup nears.

For decades we heard the prophecies that soccer was bound to conquer the U.S. Despite these confident claims made by lovers of the game, soccer's ascent into the mainstream of American sports has not come about -- something cynics often cite when arguing against soccer's place and future in this country. With that said, the amount of media attention the U.S. team has received during this non-World Cup year is extraordinary and has resulted in many more casual fans' developing a taste for the sport and a rooting interest in the national team. Friends of mine, who at one time showed little to no interest in U.S. soccer and the game as a whole, were suddenly texting me throughout the Confederations Cup and in the days leading up to the U.S.-Mexico game, expressing their opinion of the team. They are now among the many who have joined up as fans of the national team and, more importantly, as fans of the game. Count Colin Cowherd, host of "ESPN Radio's The Herd with Colin Cowherd" and co-host of ESPN2's new "SportsNation" show, among these new fans. Cowherd has apparently seen the light, become a fan of the beautiful game and actually refinished his basement in anticipation of all the U.S. soccer parties he's going to host.

The recent interest in soccer and the national team shown by new fans, like Cowherd, can be attributed to many factors, including the U.S. team's strong summer performances and the media attention it generated. But on a larger scale, the steady progressions the game has made in the United States over the last decade have been brought about by the rise of soccer-specific cable networks, Internet video, preseason summer tours put on by big European clubs and even the popularity of video games like EA's "FIFA" series. And while the use of technology and marketing has greatly helped the sport's popularity in the U.S., its continued rise must also be attributed to the game's global appeal.

"It's the pageantry, the fiesta, the spectacle of it all," Cowherd said when asked where this sudden love came from. So while disappointment is sure to abound after the U.S. team's most recent loss in Mexico, it's been a pretty positive summer for those of us who one day hope to see the same type of soccer hysteria here as is seen around the globe. If this all keeps up, Sam's Army should have plenty of new recruits by the summer of 2010.

Serie A Begins

The Serie A season begins next weekend, and while Italy's top league still must be regarded as one of the best in the world, it has not enjoyed the best offseason. The summer departures of top foreign players like Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic further weakened a league that was already struggling to keep up with the star power of its Spanish and English counterparts.

However, Serie A's problems go beyond the loss of its top foreign players. The unwillingness of top clubs to consistently start young players has hurt the quality of play and left many fans frustrated. Last season, Mario Balotelli (Inter), Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus) and even Brazilian Alexandre Pato (Milan) were often kept out of their club's starting lineups. These omissions not only robbed fans of an opportunity to watch exciting young players, but they also led to media speculation that these starlets were prepared to leave their Italian clubs for more playing time on foreign soil, something the league can ill afford right now. As Serie A prepares for kickoff, let's hope some of its top teams come to their senses and give more playing time to soccer's future stars.



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