This Week in Football History: The US begins a slow-burning love affair with soccer

David Beckham says goodbye to the Galaxy - but his arrival gave 'soccer' a major boost in the US
David Beckham says goodbye to the Galaxy - but his arrival gave 'soccer' a major boost in the US
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It's been nearly 40 years since football first tried to crack America - and it looks like it's finally done it! Andrew North tells the story... 

"At the turn of the millennium football in America was in dire need of the one concept that Americans love above all else - a Hollywood moment. They were to get it on June 5, 2002, at the World Cup..."

December 17, 1993 - Las Vegas, USA: First they form a league, and then host a brilliant World Cup. This soccer thing may just work out.  

In 1975 Pele went to New York.  

He wanted to bring the beautiful game to the final frontier - the United States of America. At first it seemed as though Pele would succeed in creating a love of 'soccer' in the US. People flocked to watch the great Brazilian play and he sold out every stadium he played in. Between 1975-77 it appeared that the US had begun to be gripped by soccer fever.

But Pele failed, the majority of American sports fans had simply gotten a case of 'Pele fever' rather than 'soccer fever'. No one man could change the hearts and minds of American sports fans overnight. A much larger and coordinated effort was to be needed to create a soccer culture in the States, and the foundations for this were built in the summer of 1988 when FIFA awarded the hosting rights of the 1994 World Cup to the USA. The US Soccer Federation then promised FIFA that they would establish a first division by the time the summer of 94 rolled around. 

On December 17, 1993, as an opening act to the World Cup draw in Las Vegas, Alan Rothenberg, head of the USA 94 bid, unveiled the framework for the Major League Professional Soccer (which later simply became Major League Soccer) as the nation's first division with plans for the first season to be held in 1995.  

A fantastic World Cup came and went, Brazil lifted the trophy on a sizzling hot day at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and for one month the United States had been consumed by this foreign sport, and needless to say people loved it. But the question that remained in the summer of 1994 was could this fleeting passion for football become something sustainable in a nation whose sporting history is firmly based around Baseball, American Football and Basketball

The answer to that question - eventually - became yes. 

The MLS had a tough upbringing, however. In its first five years it made a loss of $250 million and by 2004 that number had reached $350 million. All of the MLS sides played their games at American Football-specific stadiums whose capacities far exceeded the demand at the time for an MLS game. Experiments were made in the first few years of the MLS to 'Americanize' the sport by introducing scoreboards that counted down to 0:00 and the use of penalty shootouts to resolve drawn games. This resulted in the alienation of existing football fans without the desired result of attracting a new set of American fans.  

At the turn of the millennium football in America was in dire need of the one concept that Americans love above all else - a Hollywood moment

And on June 5, 2002, in Suwon, Korea, the US national team got their Michael Bay-esque footballing story. In their opening World Cup game against huge favorites Portugal the US incredibly found themselves 3-0 up after 35 minutes, John O'Brien, Landon Donovan and Brian McBride the scorer. They held on to win 3-2 before drawing with South Korea to ensure qualification to the first knockout round where they were handed a match against Central American rivals Mexico. The US went on to destroy the Mexicans 2-0 in a game that really could have been 7 or 8-0. In the quarter-finals Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and the Germans reminded the US of that ancient Gary Lineker proverb - "Football is a game where 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end, the Germans always win". 

But since 2002 football in the United States has been on an upward curve. Tim Howard transferred to Manchester United in 2006, the MLS expanded to Canada with the creation of Toronto FC in 2007, and in that same summer a certain Englishman and his pop star wife would trade Madrid for Malibu and the MLS had its pin-up boy.  

David Beckham joined the MLS just as football's exponential curve of popularity was about to rapidly take off in America. Everything was perfectly in place for Becks to succeed where Pele had not. 

Seven years on and 'soccer' has cemented its place as the nation's fourth sport. In certain areas of the country, most notably Portland and Seattle, football is perhaps those cities' most beloved sport, and I currently live in Boulder, Colorado, a town where the most common sport being played by the largely student population is football.  

Adrian North,

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