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Friday, Aug 01, 2014
Joe Henderson

Maybe those predictions about U.S. soccer were right

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There are plenty of stories these days about the excitement in our town over the World Cup. If you frequent establishments that sell beer and have televisions, you probably already know that.

You could resist, but why? It’s fun, and it’s global. If our lads should advance to the next round of the world’s biggest tournament, scream it loud and proud: USA! USA!!

There have been predictions for as long as I can remember that one day — honest, no kidding, we mean it — soccer was going to be really, really big in this country.

Fans of what Pele called “the beautiful game” have held tightly to that belief for years, even as what my son once called “American football” grew to gargantuan proportions. However, I submit to you that soccer’s true believers were correct, and not just because we’re all pumped with national pride over that tournament in Brazil.

It is generally agreed that soccer interest is at an all-time high in this country, and the long-term trends look even better. Check back in 20 years to see what place soccer holds in America’s sports hierarchy. I think you might be surprised.

By then, the National Football League may have had its underpinnings rocked by concussion- and injury-related lawsuits. The league faces potential damages in the billions over alleged cover-ups, and it looks like parents are becoming increasingly jittery about allowing their children to play the game.

Late last year, a story about a 9.5 percent drop in Pop Warner youth football participation from 2010-12 drew a lot of attention. The organization said the main reason for the decrease was concern about head injuries.

But, you say, there is always college football. Later this year, the Southeastern Conference will launch its own TV network, joining The Big Ten and others cashing in on the insatiable demand for sports programming. Obviously, football is the draw.

Like we said, though, let’s see what it’s like in 20 years after the NCAA dies from strangulation by its own red tape and college football programs are all unionized.

Take a deep breath.

I am not predicting the death of pro or college football.

I am not even saying soccer will completely fill whatever space is created if the audiences for football or Major League Baseball start to look elsewhere. I mean, the fastest-growing sport in the nation right now is lacrosse. Read into that what you will.

I am saying that the window is opening wider in this country for soccer to become what people predicted it could be.

A lot of that was based on the number of kids playing the sport. According to usyouthsoccer.org, that number grew from about 103,000 registered players in 1974 to more than 3 million by 2000. It has stayed at about that number ever since.

People said soccer would grow here when those 1970s kids grew into adults. Well, a lot of them are grandparents now. They played, their kids played, and now their grand kids are playing.

We now have multiple generations raised on a fast, physical game where all the equipment one needs is a ball and a pair of shoes. Television ratings for the early Cup games here have been strong, and U.S. jerseys are flying off store shelves.

That doesn’t mean we’ll stop watching football this fall.

That doesn’t mean we’ll stop wondering if the Rays can get their season straightened out.

Maybe, though, it means the people who said soccer was going to hit it big here one day were right. That day has arrived.

If you need more proof, just see what happens at your local sports pub if you ask the barkeeper to change the channel from the soccer game, no matter what teams are playing.

Better yet, don’t.

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