I remember being a kid in the 1980s. The sports heroes of mine and my friends played in Major League Baseball, the NBA, and, to a lesser extent since I didn’t grow up in a football town, the NFL. Soccer was a sport I played as a kid because it was fun. I wasn’t very good at it so I never thought about playing for a competition team. Little league soccer was the beginning and end of my knowledge of soccer as a kid. Unless you count Pelé’s Soccer, the game for the Atari 2600 where little blobs would pass a square back and forth to each other. But it is not the 1980s anymore. American kids think of soccer on a much, much bigger scale than we did back then. And here’s your proof:
Meet “Timmy.” Timmy is my neighbor who lives up the street. Timmy is between the ages of nine and eleven and LOVES soccer. He regularly gets together with two other kids his age on our street and watches Real Salt Lake matches. Being the responsible adult that I am, I often have to watch RSL matches on DVR while I take care of parental duties at home. What this means is that Timmy and the other kids on street often come knocking on my door before I’m done watching with exclamations about how great the match was. And they don’t even give me spoiler alerts!
Timmy and his friends are the future of sports fans in the United States. Unlike my generation back in the 80s, they have actual soccer heroes to look up to. Timmy is wearing a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey, Real Salt Lake shorts, and was just trying out his new Neymar shoes. His regular, non-cleated wear-around-town shoes are Lionel Messi’s signature shoes. At his feet is a replica of the Brazuca, the official match ball for the 2014 World Cup. The official World Cup match ball has had a different name in every World Cup since 1970. But do you think I knew that? Not as a kid. Timmy, on the other hand, is fully aware that Brazuca is the special ball for this World Cup. Don’t even get me started on how excited Timmy and friends have been for the World Cup.
And soccer as the future of American sports goes deeper than just fandom. Soccer has a lot of advantages over other sports when it comes to kids’ dreams. If you want to play in the NBA, you better be at least six-foot-five and be able to jump out of the gym. I can’t find a link for it, but I remember once at a basketball camp as a teenager that a kid raised his hand and asked then future-NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone what he needed to do to play in the NBA. Malone was brutally honest: “Kid,” he said, “you’re never going to play in the NBA.” He went on to explain how this undersized kid from Sandy, Utah did not have the God-given gifts to play in the NBA. And it really is true. With the way that the game is today, there are really only 400-500 guys in the world with the right combination of skill and physical gifts to be able to play in the NBA. I remember Scott Skiles putting on a clinic when I was young in which he said that he spent 10 hours a day in the gym just to prove that anyone, even short guys with no inherent athletic gifts, could play in the NBA if they worked hard enough. But the kid who wants to spend ten hours in a gym everyday is going to be hard to come by.
The inherent barriers that exist in basketball and, to a certain extent, football, do not exist in soccer. The best player in the world is only 5’7″. Another of the best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, is 6’1″ and was recently described by RSL Captain and USMNT player Kyle Beckerman as “big” and “powerful.” Soccer is a sport that anyone can play. Timmy comes from a great family of average-sized people. But his dreams of being a soccer player someday? Very much alive because soccer is a sport that anyone can play. If his sports heroes were in the NBA, his dreams of playing professionally would end sooner rather than later. If he really wants to play professionally, he, of course, is going to have to spend every waking moment on the practice field (Neymar was famously recruited to play for Brazilian club Santos at the age of six!). But at the age of nine or ten, Timmy’s dream is very much alive.
Kids like Timmy are just one of the reasons that soccer is here to stay in this country and that it will continue to be the fastest growing sport in America. Sorry, non-soccer fans.