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Griffin O’Neill writes about the growing influence of the USA on football, and the growing popularity of football in the USA.
Football is on the rise in America. Nobody can deny that. Children all over the country are getting into the sport and are becoming better and better at it. This progress has been shown over the last few decades. In 1990, America didn’t even have a professional football league and had just qualified for their first world cup in over twenty years. Twenty-six years later they have a thriving league in the MLS and are becoming more and more competitive on the international scene. Another, less spoken about, the thing that America is doing in the football world the takeover of multiple clubs across Europe. This takeover has led to both the first American manager in the Premier League and American style of business being implemented in some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
The system of youth development in America has been oft criticized by more “cultured” Europeans. The critics say the American system of school football is too rigid and doesn’t provide enough competition for positions. While this may partly true, there are many flaws to the argument. Players who have the will to succeed and the ability to make it to the professional level tend to go to either prestigious club teams in their area or they join the closest MLS club’s youth academy. This system is constantly improving as well, with the club and school teams across the country becoming more and more competitive at high levels and the amount of kids who want to play football constantly increasing as well.
This system does have some serious flaws, though. It is criminal that college football teams have to play two games in three days every week so that they can fit their season into half of the year. This makes no sense because there is nothing holding them back from extending the season to the full school year and reducing the amount of physical and mental stress that the players have to worry about. Another problem with the college system is that a lot of these coaches recruit mainly foreign players. The nearest college to me with a men’s football program has seventeen players from the USA out of thirty-three. This may be because of a lack of quality in my region, but it also speaks of the general idea of American footballers. We’re very good physically, but we aren’t as good technically. To me, this is not true at all. Americans are equally as good as European or South American players technically, but there is a stigma that Americans we can’t seem to be able to shake.
In my opinion, a lot of the growth of football in America is due to two things: the USMNT’s relative success at the 2014 World Cup and the exposure of big European clubs all over America.
The performances of the US players in this competition have inspired people all over the country to get into football and the effects of the player’s individual performances have become legendary to people all over the country. The biggest person we have to thank for the explosion of American interest in Football is US goalkeeper Tim Howard. The former Everton keeper had one of the best performances in World Cup history during the USA’s round of sixteen game against Belgium. He made sixteen saves (a World Cup record) and inspired the hilarious spread of “Things Tim Howard could save” memes (the dinosaurs from extinction, Luke Skywalker’s hand, and Abraham Lincoln just to name a few). This kind of exposure is key in an America where the internet and social media are two of the nation’s largest news sources. I’ve experienced this kind of exposure first hand because I know somebody who barely even knew how you score a goal before the Belgium game but now recognizes Tim Howard on sight.
What do you think of when you think of a big European club’s pre-season tour? A chance to try out young players or new big money signings? A place to test out a new formation? To football hungry Americans it is none of these things. It is a way to see their favorite club without having to fly across an ocean. This is shown by the 109,000 plus people that went to see Manchester United vs. Real Madrid in Michigan a few years ago. That game was the attendance record for that stadium, and for a football match in the USA. This exemplifies the hunger Americans have for football. These games mean nothing in the long term, but for Americans, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see their favorite players in their home country.
I can say that I have seized this opportunity. I drove ten hours with my brother to go and see Zlatan Ibrahimovic (for PSG) and Blaise Matuidi score in a generally boring friendly between Manchester United and PSG. This was one of the greatest experiences of my life and will stick with me forever not only because it was a great game, but also because of the amount of commitment I saw from the fans. It was eye-opening for me to see a random person sitting in a restaurant before the game with an Adnan Januzaj jersey talking tactics with her boyfriend. I saw fans walk into the stadium wearing scarves, jerseys from ten years ago, jerseys that weren’t even out yet, and chanting like they were sitting in Old Trafford itself. These random occurrences amazed me because it showed me just how much Americans care about football, no matter how much the games matter or how good the game is.
It takes a very special type of fan to travel across a country to see your favorite team play in a match that means absolutely nothing, but sadly not all fans are like that. Many of the 109K people that witnessed that game between Real Madrid and United were probably there because they’ve seen Ronaldo’s face on some commercial or have seen a picture of Wayne Rooney next to Shrek.
In the past, there has been a very small American presence in European football. The few exceptions coming with the likes of Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan, and Tim Howard. This has started to change, though. With the likes Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron starting week in and week out for Borussia M’Gladbach and Stoke City respectively, nobody can say that Americans can’t play at the highest levels. Hot prospects like Emerson Hyndman, Rubio Rubin, Lynden Gooch, and Matt Miazga are all starting to gain playing time for notable clubs in Europe, while wonder kids like Christian Pulisic and Ethan Horvath are playing consistent minutes in the Champions League for their clubs. This looks to be just the beginning as well. Clubs in Europe are beginning to notice the massive talent that players in the USA are wasting by waiting until they are twenty-three and out of college to begin their professional careers. Many top level clubs are beginning to hold tryouts in America for their academies and are reaping the rewards.
Take the story of Lynden Gooch. He was applying his trade for various clubs in southern California until he found out about a tryout that Sunderland was holding in his area. He attended and was able to join their academy at the same age he would regularly have been starting High School. This move across the pond proved crucial for Gooch’s development and now he’s starting for Sunderland in the Premier League. Think about what would’ve happened if Gooch had stayed in America. He probably would’ve been recruited by a College, graduated and then, at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three, began his career in professional football. Instead, he is playing games in one of the world’s biggest, if not the biggest, leagues for a historic club at the age of twenty.
Players aren’t the only place that America’s presence is being felt in European football. American investors have bought clubs like Everton, Swansea and most recently, Marseille. These investors have implemented their American style of management which is much more direct than the bureaucracy that usually plagues European Clubs. They have also allowed for the first American to manage in the Premier League with Swansea hiring former USMNT manager Bob Bradley. The appointment further increases the popularity of Football in America because it helps for us to realize that it is possible to make it into Europe and that America is becoming less and less isolated when it comes to football.
Overall, football in America still has a long way to go, but for a long time, it seemed as though America was too far behind in the footballing world to catch up. But now, it seems as though we have dug ourselves out of the ashes and into the forefront of the footballing world. Our national team is currently ranked above the supposedly almighty Netherlands, and our influence in the club game is growing with every year and every player that gets recruited into a European youth academy. Hopefully, football will remain on its current meteoric rise and might someday become the largest sport in America.