Ken Jones: Stateside 'soccer' slipping from major to minor

Click to follow
The Independent Football

It has been a long eight years since the World Cup finals proved such a resounding success when staged in the United States that even people of long experience confidently announced the crossing of football's last frontier.

It has been a long eight years since the World Cup finals proved such a resounding success when staged in the United States that even people of long experience confidently announced the crossing of football's last frontier.

They really should have known better. On the only continent remaining cool to it, football as a spectator sport has made no progress since that heady summer of 1994. Many millions play. The audience dwindles.

Last weekend, Major League Soccer entered its seventh season desperately seeking new investors, fearing the worst. According to Joseph D'Hippolito, of USA Today, it is touch and go – either a stable future or oblivion. A US presence in this summer's World Cup finals provides no optimism. Doesn't work, never will is the way to bet.

It was the way to bet in 1994, but few left as an open question whether America would continue to embrace a new enthusiasm once the carnival was over. "The game has been ignited here," I remember a colleague saying. "You can feel it in the crowds, see it in the faces of children. Where will football [grid-iron], baseball and basketball be in the future?"

Predictably, they are right where they were eight years ago consuming the interest of America's sport watchers while soccer clings to a raft of only 10 teams, relying on the passion of three deep-pocketed investors, Philip Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Bob Kraft, to keep it afloat. If Anschutz, an investor in eight of the teams, chose to pull out it would be over.

A celebrated Brazilian broadcaster and writer Jose Werneck who has lived for many years in Connecticut since joining the American sports television network ESPN finds none of this surprising. "A soccer boom was never going to happen in the United States," he said when we spoke this week. "People got carried away in 1994 because they wanted it to happen and the World Cup was unquestionably a great success as it probably would be again in the future because Americans love a party. Millions of youngsters, boys and girls have taken up the game but it is confined to the high schools and colleges. Once they leave school the majority lose interest."

There was a soccer boom of sorts in the 70s when great stars of the game, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, Johan Cruyff and Carlos Alberto among them were persuaded to see out the autumn of their careers in the service of newly formed clubs. It didn't last and Beckenbauer sensed a conspiracy against soccer. "The big American games didn't want soccer to succeed and could call on plenty of allies in the media," I remember him saying.

I could go further back, to 1967 when the first concerted attempt to launch professional soccer in North America took me there as a consultant to the Toronto Falcons. After less than two months I told the club's owner, Joe Peters, that he was wasting his money. "All around the world," I tried to tell them, "soccer is a ghetto game. You seem to want make it a white, middle-class sport. You're planting your seeds in the wrong places, in the private schools, the colleges. They're the wrong places. What's the ghetto game in America? Basketball. If you're betting on a explosion here I'd put my money on basketball."

Much has happened in world football since those days but little to encourage what is left of the pioneering spirit. In January the MLS Board of Governors opted for contraction, eliminating the Florida clubs Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny in the hope that dispersal of players will enhance the league's competitive balance. But as D'Hippolito points out, the demise of both Florida clubs reflects the problems of a league whose losses are now running in excess of $250 million (£172m).

When ground was recently broken on a $120m complex that will serve as a stadium for the Los Angeles Galaxy and training headquarters for all the US national soccer teams, the MLS Commissioner, Don Garber, said: "This will show the world that we are very serious about soccer."

While in New York last week I spent some time in Elmhurst, an area of Queens that is as cosmopolitan as you will find anywhere in the world with close to 100 languages. One night in an Argentinian restaurant, the World Cup unsurprisingly became a topic of conversation. "How about Major League Soccer," I asked.

They looked at me with blank faces.