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More at stake for U.S. than just World Cup title

WashPost: As fan interest builds, squad seeks a base that rivals traditional powers
USA Training & Press Conference
United States goalkeeper Kasey Keller signs autographs for fans at training session in Norderstedt, Germany.Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The silence in the sleepy Hamburg suburb of Norderstedt was shattered by a wailing convoy of police cars and motorcycles escorting a bus full of soccer players to their practice session. Residents waved flags and honked their horns as the bus drove past, and hundreds of fans gathered at an athletic complex for the team's only public workout before the World Cup, soccer's grandest event, opens on Friday in Germany.

But it was not the beloved German national squad, the spectacular Brazilians or the glamorous English causing the commotion. It was the Americans.

For the first time in its mostly subdued soccer history, the U.S. national team has arrived at the World Cup with high expectations and a popularity usually reserved for the sport's traditional powers.

Four years after their stirring run to the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea, the Americans see this summer's tournament as another opportunity to continue their soccer evolution, capture more fans worldwide and elevate the game back home, where it sits well behind football, basketball and baseball in popularity.

"We're not just playing for ourselves and our team, but for soccer in the U.S.," Landon Donovan, the team's star attacking player, said this week. "We want the game to grow and we can do that by doing well at the highest level of our sport."

While U.S. soccer players and officials see the 32-nation tournament as a grand opportunity, they also acknowledge that, thanks to a brutal first-round schedule, the United States might not be able to produce another success story. Unlike past World Cups, however, there is no longer the fear that a poor performance by the team will severely damage the sport's future in the United States. Some take that as a sign of the game's maturation back home.

"When Argentina or France has a bad World Cup, people are very concerned and there's a national cathartic moment," said Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation. "But no one is questioning the intrinsic importance of the sport in the country. We have to go through that soul-searching basically year-round. So when you get opportunities on the world stage, it's a chance to really skip a rung or two on the ladder. Not to get to the top, but to jump a couple of rungs. . . . It's no longer the case where people ask, 'Will professional soccer be around?' [It] is here to stay. But it could get a big boost."

The World Cup already is seeing an increase in interest. More than 50 U.S. media outlets sent correspondents to the national team's training camp in Cary, N.C., last month, double the number that attended in 2002. The number of U.S. media requests for credentials to cover the tournament has reached an all-time high, according to Jim Moorhouse, the soccer federation's director of communications. At least 32 daily newspapers will send reporters to Germany.

The U.S. Soccer Federation received more than 40,000 applications for tickets, and sold out its initial allotment of 10,000 in a day. Another 5,000 tickets were bought by American fans through FIFA, the international soccer federation.

The growth in fan interest was apparent even in Norderstedt, the site of the U.S. practice on Tuesday. There were about 1,000 spectators, most of them Germans, including dozens of schoolchildren wearing USA T-shirts. The Germans even knew most of the U.S. players' names; Germany knocked the United States out of the 2002 World Cup, and more than half the U.S. team plays professionally in Europe.

A team of 16-year-olds from Illinois also attended. The team is affiliated with a youth program run by Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, and was in Hamburg for a tournament.

"It's a great experience, especially to see them in another country," said Blake Bochnak, the youth team's goalkeeper. "What they did in 2002 has been a great pickup for soccer in the United States. It gave everyone hope that we can play against the rest of the world and, for younger players like us, it makes us believe that we can accomplish the same things and play in the World Cup and play professionally someday."

Although professional soccer in the United States is not a lucrative venture for many players — 14 of D.C. United's 28 players will make less than $36,500 this season, for instance — corporate America is beginning to take more interest in the sport.

Three of U.S. soccer's major sponsors — Nike, Gatorade and Sierra Mist — are featuring the American World Cup team prominently in their advertising this summer. ESPN and ABC bought the English-language rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups for $100 million, a substantial increase from the $40 million that Soccer United Marketing — a company created by Major League Soccer — paid for the 2002 and 2006 rights.

ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will broadcast all 64 games live and in high definition, and ESPN will produce a daily two-hour show with highlights and analysis.

"The World Cup will bring exposure," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "It creates a lot of awareness because there's a lot of money being spent [on] it, and it's got arguably the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval with ESPN paying attention to it. That kind of legitimizes sport in America; there's a certain subculture to the sports consumer that's not that sophisticated, [but they think], 'If it's on ESPN, I'll stop and watch it.' That's the kind of mainstream people that maybe need to get exposed to the sport."

Soccer's participation numbers, particularly at the youth level, in the United States have been strong for decades. Seventeen million people in the United States played soccer in 2005, according to a report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers of America, and while sports such as baseball and basketball have had declines in participation levels since 1987, soccer has not.

The challenge has been turning those participation numbers into fans who attend Major League Soccer games, watch matches on television and buy licensed soccer merchandise. Television ratings for MLS do not remotely approach those of the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

Success at the gate varies. The Los Angeles Galaxy averaged 24,204 fans at the Home Depot Center last season — the best number in the 12-team league — while the Kansas City Wizards drew an average of 9,691 at Arrowhead Stadium. D.C. United, the most successful franchise in MLS history with four championships, averaged 16,664.

"Do people care about soccer? They certainly care about the national team in the World Cup," Gulati said. "On the other hand, except for that period, we clearly don't have the same interest level in the national team or the league that there is in baseball or football."

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league benefited from the U.S. team's success in 2002. But at the same time, Garber said, the league cannot depend on the national team to drive the popularity of the game.

"That ultimately is not going to be what will determine the future of the sport," he said. "It's so many other things: It's teams in local communities that are connecting with youth teams, it's the emergence of the sport as a very competitive and exciting game, it's about capitalizing on all the ethnic shifts that are going on in the country, it's about building world-class facilities."

Those involved with U.S. soccer have been careful to dial down the expectations for Germany. The United States is in a difficult first-round group that includes Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. "The goal is to get out of our group," said Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach. "Whoever we play after that, it's beautiful. It's a heck of a challenge, but I think it's a goal we can make."

U.S. soccer officials often point to the French national team as an example of the unpredictability of the World Cup. France failed to qualify in 1994, won the championship in 1998 as the host nation, then crashed out of the first round in 2002 without a goal or a win despite being heavy favorites. They point out that people in France still watched veteran French midfielder Zinedine Zidane and still attended AS Monaco games despite the struggles of the national team.

"We feel good about where we are today, but we still have a long way to go to achieve our goal of turning America into a true, in quotes, soccer nation," Garber said. "The question still exists whether the U.S. will ever love the sport and engage in the sport the way they do in England or Brazil or Italy. But for my view, that's okay. America is a different country and should be comfortable in caring about the sport and following the sport in a way that's specific to us."