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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

It will take a mindset change if the US is to prosper in global football

The statistics show US football is flourishing, but many Americans are simply not interested, writes David Millward

Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during an MLS soccer match between the United and Orlando City last month. Curtis Compton / AP
Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during an MLS soccer match between the United and Orlando City last month. Curtis Compton / AP

The US national team has been abject, failing miserably to qualify for the World Cup this time around.

In the past, this would have meant that American sports fans ignored the tournament while devoting their time to traditional pursuits like baseball and basketball.

But not this year. Go into a bar and there is a fair chance the World Cup will be on the television. And household names have bought advertising time on the Fox channels which are showing the tournament.

Football has become big business in the US, reflected in the country joining forces with Canada and Mexico to stage a successful bid to stage the 2026 World Cup.

The three countries are currently quarreling over trade, while immigration is a long-running sore between the Trump administration and Mexico. But all was apparently forgotten when it came to bidding for arguably the world’s most prestigious and lucrative sporting event.

Hostilities were suspended between the countries, although it might be little more than a truce of convenience while the current incumbent occupies the White House.

Mr Trump was reportedly so desperate for the bid to be successful that he sent three separate letters to Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, promising to lift his controversial travel ban targeting Muslim majority countries – and potentially their footballers – for the duration of the tournament.

Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for the bid is not completely surprising. He is something of a football enthusiast, having played the game at college. His son, Barron, is not only an Arsenal fan but he is also a midfielder with DC United’s Development Academy.

It is a reflection of how the game’s popularity has grown over the past decade or so and the footballing landscape is very different from when the World Cup came to the USA in 1994.

Then the game was a curiosity to the vast majority of Americans, even though they turned out in good numbers for the matches.

As a condition of winning the 1994 World Cup bid, the US pledged to start a new professional competition. Major League Soccer. It began in 1996 and initially was not a success.

Attempts to Americanise the sport – with innovations such as a countdown clock – failed to attract new fans and merely antagonised existing supporters who did not like the sport being tampered with. Even then there were diehards, with the sport having a surprisingly venerable footballing tradition.

Some hotbeds of the game, like Fall River in Massachusetts and Kearney in New Jersey, date back well over a century.

Kearney, for example, was known as “Soccer Town USA” with the game having arrived along with thousands of Scottish and Irish Immigrants in the 1870s.

Of course, the USA humiliated England in 1950 in the World Cup when a ragbag team which included a hearse driver and a postman defeated their rather more exalted opponents 1-0. Many of the team were immigrants who brought the sport with them to their adopted home and kept it alive, at least at local level.

Fast forward to today and the picture is very different.

Barron Trump is one of 4.4 million registered players in the US, a total exceeded only by Germany. There is a mountain of evidence to show that the football is gaining traction at the expense of traditional US sports.

Gridiron remains the most popular sport for 37 per cent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll earlier this year. But it has slipped six points since its 2006 peak.

The NFL’s fall from grace has accompanied a raft of domestic violence controversies involving some of its top players and the “take a knee protest” by many stars has alienated not only Mr Trump but many blue collar Americans who have been the sport’s bedrock.

According to the poll, the “beautiful game” is now the favoured sport of seven per cent of Americans, just two points behind baseball. But among those aged 18 to 34, football is now the second most popular sport.

The game is becoming hip among millennials and they, in turn, are getting their children to play the game.

There is also massive interest in the English Premier League. NBC took a huge gamble when in October 2012, it paid $250 million for the rights to show games for three years.

It has been a roaring success with NBC now happy to pay $1 billion to extend the contract until 2022.

Visiting teams can rack up massive attendances. Both Chelsea and Manchester United have played in front of more than 100,000 people in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Big-name European players including David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are ending their careers with stints in the now flourishing MLS.

The league saw attendances rise by 30 per cent last year and the MLS average was 22,113 – about 1,000 more than the Premier League attracted in its inaugural season. Two teams, Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders, regularly draw more than 50,000 a game.

It is proving an ideal backdrop for young American players to get a foothold in the game. The only snag is that European clubs are also aware of the potential of US footballers and are signing them up early.

Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey forged their professional careers in Europe, as has the latest big hope, Christian Pulisic. He played in the US Development Academy but has made his name at Borussia Dortmund, emerging as one of Europe's most promising talents.

Persuading the very best players to resist the lure and lucre of European football is one of the two big challenges facing football in the US.

The other is facing down the residual hostility of some Americans to what they regard as a soft and politically suspect foreign sport. It is a view held by an array of right-wing commentators quick to vent on the airwaves.

For them, "football" means armour-clad giants hurtling into each other at breakneck speed. Suggesting that they think otherwise is likely to prove a thankless task.

David Millward is a journalist in the United States