The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


‘Real’ football picks up speed in U.S.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Trinity Hall, an Irish pub located in Mockingbird Station. Eclectic imported draft beers pour from a row of taps behind the bar. The smell of vinegar permeates the air as forks tear through fish and chips. Bodies are huddled around two televisions in the back of the restaurant, as well as the large, canvas projection screen in the front. Soon enough, a roar of cheers echoes through the restaurant and arms fly high into the air in celebration. It doesn’t matter that it’s in the middle of the afternoon, a time when most people should be at work. They’re here to watch soccer instead.

“To see so many people pack in here and scream and yell and support a sport that was basically dead in the U.S. 10 years ago in a pub atmosphere – it’s really electric,” said Brian Eisemann, who has worked at Trinity Hall for more than four years. “That’s why on my day off, you’ll see me up here watching the games.”

With the Major League Soccer season now underway, soccer fans in the United States will be able to see games live without having to hop on a plane and traverse the Atlantic Ocean to watch European games during the MLS’ off-season. While they may be in the minority of sports enthusiasts, soccer fans are gaining in numbers as popularity for the sport rises.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 11.9 million viewers tuned in to the 2006 World Cup final, a 150-percent increase from 2002. The rating surpassed the average number of viewers for that year’s NBA finals by four million. But how do ratings for MLS games compare?

“MLS ratings are low but no worse really than the NHL or the WNBA. The most important thing for MLS is to stay in business,” said sports analyst Pete Stein in an e-mail interview. “It took years really decades for MLB and the NFL to reach the levels they’re at.” In the ’90s, Stein announced games for the Dallas Sidekicks, a professional indoor soccer team. He recently did the play-by-play announcing for this year’s Dallas Cup.

Still a relatively new sport in the U.S., the first professional teams in the United States didn’t appear until 1996. But the sport seems most popular among children, who start playing at a young age.

“When I was growing up everyone would be outside playing basketball or football. Now, driving around home, there’s more kids in the backyard playing soccer. It seems like every little kid around here plays soccer,” said third-year journalism and English double-major Scott Guthrie. He attributes the rise in youth players to a new generation of parents. Now there are parents who played the sport when they were younger and urge their children to participate, he said.

Guthrie grew up in Kansas and started playing soccer around age four. Like many children, Guthrie traveled the country playing in various tournaments, including the Dallas Cup.

Held every year since 1980, the Dallas Cup is a high-profile tournament featuring world-class talent from all over the world. U.S. premier club teams face off against youth squads from different national club teams, including such household names as Spanish giants Real Madrid and England’s Manchester United.

Taylor Baca, a 23-year-old graduate of SMU, also believes that the popularity of soccer is on the rise. Baca grew up in Flower Mound, and like Guthrie, was immersed in the world of soccer at a young age. He started playing in the late ’80s, a time when organized teams began sprouting up all over the country.

“When I was first going into clubs, there was only a handful of big clubs and all the rest were kind of the underdogs,” said Baca. “Now there’s at least 10 big clubs that kids can play for and have a shot of going somewhere with it.”

Baca says programs are adapting a higher level of seriousness by hiring coaches who know what they are doing.

Major League Soccer, the first professional league in the U.S., was introduced in 1996, two years after the World Cup was held in the country. The average sports fan did not take to the sport or the league. Attendance was significantly lower than any other sport in the country. As the MLS has reshaped its image and marketing following the 2006 World Cup, things are looking up for the league.

The arrival of David Beckham, a former Manchester United and Real Madrid star player, to the LA Galaxy in 2006 created a new buzz around the seemingly struggling league. Beckham said at a press conference in January 2007, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make a difference.” And make a difference Beckham did, even though he was injured for most of the season and played in only eight matches. More than 250,000 LA Galaxy jerseys with Beckham’s name on the back were sold, and ticket sales for MLS games against the Galaxy reached an all-time high.

Although “Beckhamania” swept through the country, bringing the MLS to the forefront of sports broadcasts and celebrity gossip shows, some feel that importing players isn’t enough.

“I really believe what America needs is a homegrown superstar, and the national team to continue its improvement and become a real threat to win the World Cup,” Stein said.

The struggling national team is another addition to the list of reasons why most Americans tend to steer clear of the world’s most popular sport. Baca shares Stein’s sentiment.

“You can’t just bring in big-name players and expect things to change,” Baca said. “A lot of it has to do with the development at the youth level.”

When Baca studied for a year at Jesuit College Prepatory School of Dallas, he played alongside current MLS players Kenny Cooper and Ramon Nunez. Baca believes the league is headed in the right direction, but there’s a big problem with the structure of how soccer is professionally played. In the United States, the MLS has something over leagues don’t – playoffs.

“The format of the season doesn’t make any sense. Playoffs are so not important,” Baca said. “Why do they play all these regular season games if all but like one or two teams can make it to playoffs?” He went on to suggest that the MLS should follow the example of other leagues. Every team should play each other twice, home and away, and the team with the best record at the end of the season wins the championship.

He attributes the lack of quality among both MLS teams and the U.S. national team to a mentality that if a person is small, he cannot be a good soccer player.

“Not too many players in the MLS can actually play, they’re just the typical American ‘athlete.’ That’s the difference between most of the other countries who are a lot more talented,” Baca said.

Regardless of the shape the MLS is currently in, the presence of the sport in the country caught the attention of two sports franchise tycoons including Tom Hicks, owner of the Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers. Hicks and George Gillett bought Liverpool FC, an English soccer team that is fairly well known in sports-loving American households. The acquisition of the club has contributed to a spike in support for the club here in Dallas. The Texas Chapter of Liverpool FC supporters meets every week at Trinity Hall to watch games. Groups such as the Texas Chapter and Arsenal for America aim to bring an awareness of the sport to people who might not have ever had a chance to see the game. When there’s a soccer game on at Trinity Hall, patrons who may only be there for the fish and chips quickly become involved in the action.

“The more people watch the game, the more they can relate the tactics to American sports. They begin to see how much skill and finesse goes into it,” said Israel Delgado as he dried an empty pint glass. Delgado has worked as a bartender at Trinity Hall for four years.

“It’s great just seeing the reaction on customers faces that are just here to have lunch. They see people really getting into it,” Delgado said. “They pick a team and by the end, they’re getting into it as well.”

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