A while ago I watched the official FIFA film of the 1994 World Cup. It opened by asking typical Americans what they knew about football. Let’s just say knowledge was scarce, responses ranged from ‘nothing’ to ‘is it that game where they kick the ball?’. Obviously it was moulded to satisfy a certain stereotype, but the message was loud and clear. What do Americans know about football?
Well, that was a few years ago now and things seem to have changed. While, for various reasons, football will never be as popular as the ‘big four’ sports in the US, it is undeniable that Uncle Sam is starting to make a big impression on the world’s game.
The USA are currently thriving in its role as an exporter, rather than a retainer of its best talent. Of its 23 man squad for the World Cup only 4 play in the MLS, with the rest spanning clubs from all over Europe from AC Milan to Villarreal. This is no different to other footballing nations from the Americas. The squads that Brazil, Argentina and Chile took to the World Cup all contained a vast majority of players who play outside of their domestic leagues.
The amount of Americans playing in the top leagues in Europe has a knock-on effect to levels of interest for football in the USA. As the likes of Clint Dempsey go abroad and become better players the national team improves – as shown by the US winning their World Cup group for the first time since 1930. As the national team improves on the World stage football becomes more popular back home, and as a result more people play and watch football at the domestic level. As the levels of interest grow the domestic league gets more exposure and more players go and play abroad.
Much like the other professional leagues in the US, the MLS is very well run in terms of youth and up and coming players. With more and more teams boasting emerging youth teams – led by DC United, the MLS also has what they call the ‘Superdraft’ which was introduced in 2000. As with basketball and the NFL, the teams in the league get to choose the best young players graduating from university. While at university these players play regular, competitive games in a team structured as if it were professional, so that the MLS is the next natural step up. This draft occurs every year and ensures that there is an endless conveyor belt of talented, intelligent, young players coming into the league. Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, and Michael Bradley are just some of the players who have gone on to national team level after benefitting from the Superdraft system.
When David Beckham made his shock move to the LA Galaxy he said that he wanted to make a difference and he certainly has. Granted he is now past his best, but would Henry have considered going stateside had Beckham not upped the league’s profile? Henry is a player who is likely to catch the imagination of the American public, a skilful player who scores goals and he has a good chance of boosting the reputation of football in America even further.
It could be argued that the US is now replacing the Far-East as the untapped market for English Premier League teams. Spurs, Man Utd and Man City are all embarking on tours of the States this summer. To show how much the MLS has improved over the last decade and how important the market over there has become, it worth looking at the last time Ferguson took United to the America. In 2004 they played 3 exhibition games against Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Celtic, a tour of America without playing an American team. This year they play Philadelphia, Kansas City and an MLS All-Star XI.
The USA will probably never win the World Cup and the MLS will never match the NBA, NFL or MLB. But as a nation, they still have a lot to offer the world game.
Written By Karl Sears