Soccer Takes Hold of the U.S.

“It seems to me that soccer has really caught on big in the United States, and it makes sense that it will become more and more popular,” says Rafa Puente, commentator on ESPN’s Fútbol Picante, who shares his opinion on the state of soccer in this country. “A very strong interest has been building for a while now.”

Soccer was first played in the United States in the early 1800s, but this sport, which arrived with British and German immigrants, was slow to gain the same popularity as “native” sports—especially baseball, football, and basketball—although it continued to engage newcomers. “Soccer is the sport of immigrants,” says Barak Fever, reporter and commentator for ESPN. “In many ways, it continues to be the sport of the Italian community, the Latin community and the Asian community.”

In the middle of the twentieth century, it looked like soccer would have a surge in popularity, with the creation of a national collegiate championship and two professional leagues. It gained enormous (but short-lived) visibility while the super-famous Pelé played for New York, between 1975 and 1977. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the sport really took hold with the American public. It was then that, for the first time in 40 years, the American national team qualified to play in the World Cup. In 1994, the U.S. hosted the Cup, and American TV audiences were introduced to international clubs and stars. They started to notice professional soccer and to follow it with greater interest.

At the same time, the popularity of amateur and children’s soccer was confirmed during the 1996 presidential campaign, when Bob Dole and Bill Clinton announced that the election would be decided by the “Soccer Mom”— the suburban woman whose life was dedicated to taxiing her kids from one soccer match to another. Major League Soccer was established that same year and many of its players went on to compete in the 2002 World Cup, where they reached the Quarterfinals. According to Nielsen, the 2010 World Cup Finals established a new record as the most-watched soccer event in U.S. history, with 24.3 million viewers watching on ABC and Univision.

Today, more than 24 million Americans play soccer, and the sport has replaced ice hockey as the fourth most popular sport in the country (and second among people aged 12-24, according to an ESPN poll). There’s no shortage of opportunities to watch professional matches, whether in person or on TV. Among the broadcasters transmitting games and coverage are channels in English and Spanish, including ESPN and ESPN2, Fox Sports 1 and 2, the NBC Sports Network, GolTV, beIN SPORTS, and of course, Latin networks Univision, Telemundo, Fox Deportes, UniMás, Galavisión and Azteca América.