20 Years Ago, 20 Years From Now

One of the many images of U.S. goalie Tim Howard tweeted during the game against Belgium.

One of the many images of U.S. goalie Tim Howard tweeted during the game against Belgium.

“Soccer will never be popular in America. Sure, people got a little excited about this, but that’s only natural. It will go away as soon as the event is over and everyone will focus on baseball, football and basketball again.”

I first remember hearing people say those things in 1994, when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup. In those days, we were lucky just to be in the event and had missed it from 1950 until 1990. When we did show up for big-time international soccer, we typically got crushed.

But, by luck, home field advantage, a tragic own goal, and some improvement in quality, the U.S. somehow made it to the round of 16.

Between being the host (of the best-attended World Cup ever, by the way) and playing over our heads, the event got a little attention.

Just a little.

But it was still pretty mockable. We were still, frankly, bad at the game. We had hosted a spectacular event, but a neutral or cynical observer would be justified in assuming that the future of American soccer, both for players and spectators, was limited.

Today, we are not terrible at soccer. In fact, we are just outside the “elite” level of countries like Brazil, Germany, Argentina, the Netherlands and one or two others. Ranked 13th in the world, most teams we face internationally would expect to lose to us, and every team, even the best, would sweat having to play us because we could legitimately beat them.

Stop and think about that for a moment, because it applies to much more than just soccer: Twenty years ago, we were chronically terrible at this game. Minnows could and did routinely beat us. We could potentially lose to anybody.

Today, 20 years later, we go into most international games expecting, rightfully, to win, and we do. We’re not (yet) at the super elite level, but we are just one level down from that. Even the whales have to concern themselves with our team, and on any given day, we could beat anyone.

(And that’s not even to mention that our women’s team is and has been No. 1 in the world.)

Here’s the message: Some things take a generation. In 1994, people said “soccer won’t catch on,” and it was an understandable comment. Today, people (including trolls) who say “soccer won’t catch on” sound fearful and out of touch. They’ve even got the verb tense wrong: It’s not something that will or won’t happen in the future. It has already happened.

Millions and millions of people play it, far more than baseball or football and similar to basketball; the World Cup TV ratings this year are better than the NBA Finals ratings; Major League Soccer attendance is healthy and growing; and interest in European soccer leagues is high and growing.

In other words, don’t ask “will it happen?” It happened.

Some people, rather foolishly in my opinion, keep saying things like, “Is this the moment that will make soccer break through in the U.S.?”

Is that how this kind of thing works? No, it isn’t. It’s a long, long process of getting better on the field and growing interest off the field.

On the field, the National team and all the other soccer in the country is gradually and inevitably getting better. Off the field, interest from spectators on every level has grown to the point where it’s very real.

If you had to bet your life whether soccer or baseball would be more popular in 20 years, what would you pick? Careful now. Your life’s at stake.

In 20 years time, we will be an elite soccer nation if we continue to improve at the rate of the last 20. Probably not before then. We’ll get gradually more and more competitive, but it will be hard for us to make a legitimate run at the Cup for a while, unless we get to host again.

Twenty years is a long time, but if you can work on those time frames, you can achieve anything. It’s hard to explain now how absolutely nowhere American soccer was back in the ’80s and early ’90s. Where we are today — consistently making and advancing in the World Cup, threatening to go further — is something they would have and did dream of then, but now it’s reality.

Likewise, competing for a Cup is a dream today, but it could easily be reality in 20 years. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the way things look if they just continue the way they’ve gone.

So why am I bothering telling you this? Partly because I’ve been involved in this “project” since the early ’80s as a player, coach, volunteer, observer, fan, and everything else. I’m one of the army of people who has played a very small part in improving American soccer.

But there’s a bigger point here that I hope many of you in the live entertainment business understand: If you have generation-scale patience, you can do the impossible. Don’t think there’s a market for your genre?

Maybe that’s true. Or maybe your planning just isn’t patient enough. What happens if your planning horizon goes to 40 years? What’s possible then?

Just about anything.

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