With seconds left in the 95th minute, America, as a nation, stood watching. US fans chanted “I Believe” as Portugal swung in a floating cross, before striking it into the back of the net tying the match with seconds left. In the 95 minute, America, as a nation, nearly put their fists through their TV screens as time trickled out in America’s second World Cup game.
But a nation did this. Our nation, the United States of America, for the first time, nearly put our fists through our television screens because of a soccer match. With the English Premier League rising, Major League Soccer growing and the nationwide support for the World Cup, soccer is becoming a major sport in America.
Even with last summer’s World Cup hype, senior varsity soccer player Ari Throckmorton’s interest hasn’t been spiked. Probably because he’s been watching since the third grade. When he was nine, while most of the kids around him were waking up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons, he was getting up to watch his favorite player Thierry Henry take the pitch for Arsenal.
In the last few years, more and more people are getting up for those early morning Premier League games as the league’s popularity has risen in the States according to Bleacher Report. Last year, on Championship Day, NBC showed 10 matches in a row, each averaging around five million viewers. Hockey, the fourth largest sport in America, and its Stanley Cup final averaged less than 1.5 million viewers per game.
“There [are] obviously [EPL fans] who live in our country, who live and die like most Americans do about the NFL,” head soccer coach and life-long Manchester United fan Jamie Kelly said. “You live and die through [English] clubs.”
The MLS is growing too. With three new expansion teams, coming to New York, Orlando and Atlanta, joining by 2017, even the MLS’s smallest teams, like Real Salt Lake, are selling out stadiums. In Kansas City, Sporting Kansas City has sold out each game since the 2013 season with more people in attendance than your average NBA game, according to ESPN attendance statistics.
Kelly believes Sporting’s success and the growth of the MLS has created new fans for American soccer. New fans like photography teacher Adam Finkelston, who began following Sporting two years ago.
“I remember going to Wizards’ games,” Finkelston said. “The last time I went to a Wizards’ game, it was at Arrowhead, and it was terrible. There was nobody there, it was a 0-0 tie, it was just no fun at all.”
Finkelston didn’t go to another game until the Wizards had changed to Sporting and they had moved out of Arrowhead Stadium and into their own Sporting Park.
“Somehow I got tickets,” Finkelston said. “Just the whole atmosphere, I like the whole feel of the stadium and the crowd. It just has a lot of energy. I love the passion. It was just cool.”
He started following Sporting immediately after that game. Since then, he’s started watching soccer more and he’s begun to understand the game and it’s strategy. And the World Cup this summer served to strengthen that interest.
“[The World Cup] maybe spiked my interest a bit more, but it also kind of solidified it,” Finkelston said. “It gives you a sense of [pride for] the MLS as a league. When Clint Dempsey comes to town, I’m rooting against his team, but I’m rooting for Clint Dempsey because he plays for the US. I would never root for Derek Jeter just because he was on the American League All Star team. I still hate his guts.”
With stars like Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler returning home, they’re coming back to more than just hype for soccer. They’re coming back to a stronger MLS, according to Kelly.
“It’s a true testament [to] Besler and Zusi,” Kelly said. “Those guys could go play in Europe right now, but they chose to stay here and play for Sporting. We’re able to, not just bring in players, but keep our own players too instead of them just going over to Europe [which makes] our league stronger.”
Even here at East, Throckmorton, whose older brother started for the varsity soccer for East, has seen a change now that he’s the one down on the pitch.
“I remember when I was younger, I’d go to my brother’s high school games and they had a fan section that was pretty decent, but I don’t remember them being nearly as large as they are today at our games,” Throckmorton said.
Soccer is growing in this country. More Americans than ever are watching the sport. From the Premier League and MLS down to soccer here at East, more people are paying attention to soccer.