If you were to ask someone on the street which country has brought more fans to the World Cup this year, many wouldn’t venture that it would be the U.S.
But with the close proximity of the World Cup this year the United States has sent more fans to Brazil than any other nation. U.S. fans also account for the second largest overseas television audience of the event.
So is the cultural fervor enough to propel the sport into the ranks of other popular U.S. sports like football and basketball? The Texas Standard's David Brown speaks with Greg Lalas, editor-in-chief of mlssoccer.com about the rising popularity of soccer in the states.
“It’s important to sort of think of the way it’s continued to grow” Lalas says. With nearly 16 million viewers watching this year’s World Cup, it’s not like the trend is an overnight occurrence. “It’s not a revolution it’s an evolution,” Lalas says, noting that the 2010 World Cup brought in a steady flow of US fandom as well.
However Lalas doesn’t prescribe to the notion of a singular event shifting public opinion – instead, he thinks the sport has simply been gaining steady momentum over the last two decades.
“The truth is, very quietly it has become a big thing," he says. "Maybe not at this point in the eyes of editors and producers and some of the mainstream media, but I can tell you that on the street it is very definitely a big thing.”
U.S. participation in soccer isn’t just limited to fandom and viewership either. Twenty two Major League Soccer players from the U.S. and Canada are participating in this year’s World Cup. One of those players is Texas native Clint Dempsey, who has been gathering acclaim for scoring the fastest US goal in world cup history – in just 32 seconds. “To me there is no coincidence that this world class player succeeds in MLS, and then goes straight to the World Cup, then succeeds at the World Cup.” Lalas says.
Dempsey’s story off the field is just as interesting as his story on it. The Nacogdoches local was said to have quit playing soccer as a child, in order for his parents to support his older sister in becoming a ranked youth tennis player. But when his sister died at age 16 from a brain aneurism, Dempsey went back to the sport.
Lalas says “he dedicated himself in many ways to proving that he was worthy of all of that. People have said that he plays with a chip on his shoulder. I don’t think that that’s really true. I think that what he plays with is passion, and maybe some sentimentality that’s buried in bitterness in the way things went.”
Still, it’s a story that is easy for fans to rally behind, and could potentially launch Dempsey into stardom. But Lalas notes that when it comes to soccer, “history says that no one player is bigger than the club.”