The beautiful game

Team USA's World Cup success spurring growth in youth soccer

Nine-year-old Makenna Hartmann is one of the 140 players who play Thursday nights in the Fire FC’s 3 vs. 3 league at Pomona Elementary School. Youth soccer participation in the Grand Valley is trending upward, thanks to the success of the U.S. team in the World Cup and a growing appreciation for the game.

The United States of America, compared with the rest of the world, hasn’t embraced soccer with the same fervor as most countries.

Outside of the World Cup, which rolls around every four years, soccer gets lost behind the “big four” of football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

But Americans may be accepting soccer more than the average person thinks and not just because of the World Cup.

Right now, soccer has the third-best average attendance of any professional league in United States.

Major League Soccer released its average attendance figures for 2013, with a mean of 18,594 fans per game. That’s more than professional basketball and hockey, albeit with a shorter schedule and fewer teams.

There are pockets around the country where professional soccer has really taken off.

Hipsters, with Starbucks in hand, have sold out 67,000-seat CenturyLink Field in Seattle on multiple occasions as the Sounders repeatedly smashed their own MLS record for average attendance. During the 2013 season, Seattle averaged more than 44,000 fans per game.

That’s a higher average attendance than all but one Major League Baseball team, the L.A. Dodgers, and almost double the draw of the Seattle Mariners. It doubles the average attendance of every team in the NHL and NBA, and it’s close to the average draws of a few NFL teams.

The Sounders would also be the sixth-most attended team in the English Premier League — a league that NBC pays roughly $83 million per year to air its games in the U.S. — and fourth in Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A.

Similar popularity, on a smaller scale, can be seen in Portland and Vancouver. Young, educated, expensive-coffee-chugging people watch soccer, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Cities with large populations of immigrants, particularly cities in Texas and California, also have solid attendance numbers. Add Montreal to the mix, and you have a legitimate base of North American cities that support Major League Soccer.

That only recently extended to the World Cup.

The United States’ heartbreaking 2-2 draw to Portugal on Sunday was ESPN’s most-watched non-football broadcast with 24.7 million TV viewers and an estimate of streaming viewers that ballooned beyond 1 million Wednesday. Those numbers don’t account for the thousands of people watching at large, outdoor viewing parties in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

It was the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history, topping the iconic 1999 Women’s World Cup final in which Brandi Chastain and the United States topped China in penalty kicks at a sold out Rose Bowl.

People liked soccer more when the U.S. was winning, but now it seems they just like soccer.

The WatchESPN app crashed Thursday during the United States’ 1-0 loss to Germany, as an estimated 2 million people tried to watch the game through the streaming service.

That number is only expected to rise when the U.S. takes on Belgium on Tuesday.

Foot Locker is carrying U.S. National Team jerseys, polos, T-shirts and other soccer swag. Sports Authority sells U.S. soccer balls, cleats and various pieces of equipment.

Merchandising, at least, has really taken off.

That popularity has extended to Grand Junction.

Two different soccer camps in town, both taking place Thursday, got a boost in participation.

Fire FC, a local youth soccer club, helped put on the Colorado Soccer Association camp. Director Shaun Howe said the camp saw increased numbers because of the World Cup. He was expecting 50 players. More than 75 showed up.

The soccer camp at Colorado Mesa University, which was expecting around 50 kids, ended up with nearly 100.

Fire FC’s 3 vs. 3 league, which takes place most Thursdays during the summer, expanded from 100 kids to 140.

“It’s a lot like gymnastics during the Olympics,” Howe said. “You see a lot more kids and parents taking an interest in the sport. Especially those competitive kids, who watch the game and see how the game is played. Watching soccer really motivates those types of kids to go out and play. With over 20 million people seeing the U.S. and Portugal game, plenty of people are watching.”

Chris Matlock, a 2014 graduate of Fruita Monument High School and a current assistant coach with its boys varsity team, said the evolution of the sport is making it more appealing to American audiences.

“I feel like everybody has an opinion on the World Cup,” Matlock said. “I have buddies on the basketball team, a couple on the football team, that really got into this. Soccer has the broad appeal now where all of our favorite things about different sports (makes) soccer fun to watch.

“If you’ve watched a German game, or a Spanish game, America and the MLS is really modeling itself after that direct, aggressive style of play.”


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