Thursday, April 13, 2006

Rocket Summer

Following the trend Manchester United set a few years back, Spanish giants FC Barcelona will tour the United States this summer, playing three matches. They'll face off against two Mexican clubs before taking on the newly named New York Red Bulls in Giants Stadium.

This, of course, will come on the heels of a World Cup summer where key players like Argentinian Lionel Messi, Brazilian Ronaldinho, and Dutchman Mark Van Bommel promise to be very busy, virtually guaranteeing that you will see a subpar Barca team fielded. Which makes sense, but it's a shame. Last summer Manchester United and Bayern Munich squared off in Chicago and played what -- by most reports -- was one of the dullest, drabbest games ever attached to those two teams. I guess what I'm trying to say is that these tours are great, and they definitely get some fans out there and create some interest in soccer, but the difference they're making is either negligible or hasn't been seen yet. Soccer still lags behind all four major team sports, despite a few facts that should be working in its favor: 1)Hockey's popularity is at an alltime low. 2)More kids are playing soccer than ever before. 3)Soccer players and families represent a fairly affluent section of the population.

I think in the next five-ten years, you'll start to see some signs of whether soccer will or won't turn the corner. As the population (those under the age of, say, 28) that grew up playing the game as a kid in AYSO gets older, and their kids play the game, will it then start to take root? The 2002 World Cup TV ratings suffered from bizarre start times, where only the die-hard fans were called out of bed at 3 am to watch Croatia lose to Mexico by a solitary penalty kick. World Cup 2006 in Germany will see most of its games played in the daytime, but there should still be some improvement.

For me, the real barometer will be the MLS. We've already seen a women's league fail, despite the fact that the US Women's National Team sells out most games and is revered pretty much anywhere it goes. The Men's National Team is, by some comparisons, less popular, but the MLS has survived, mainly on thrifty business decisions and not taking too many chances. Is the quality getting better? It's hard for me to tell. Undoubtedly the league was better off when National Teamers like Brian McBride, DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard, and Bobby Convey were counted in its ranks. But like so many solid smaller, foreign leagues (the Belgian and Dutch leagues seem like good examples), feeding the bigger leagues is a natural and healthy consequence.

For me, step one is getting the real soccer fans -- the people who were up for Blanco's nifty footwork and ensuing penalty that won that 2002 game against Croatia -- who have to commit to the MLS to make it successful. The league can't count only on soccer moms and dads carting a Nissan Quest load of replica-jersey wearing 10 year olds. The league's success requires the devotion and (required) patience of the hardcore fanbase -- those of us who recognize that a Tuesday night game between FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo ain't exactly Liverpool-Man U, but that there's something appealing about watching potential.

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