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Soccer's watch still ticking

June 23, 2002|by MARK KELLER

Is football finally going to catch on in the United States?

No, not that football. I'm talking about what the rest of the world calls football and Americans - ever the rebels - call soccer.

The game is enjoying an all-time high in the states after the U.S. team advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals when it was questioned whether they would even make it out of their group.

Americans love an underdog, and they proved it by backing the national team in unprecedented numbers. Thousands of fans went to stadiums in Columbus, Ohio, and Washington to watch the U.S.-Germany match Friday morning. Nearly 3 million people tuned in to ESPN's broadcast of the U.S.-Mexico match Monday - at 2:20 a.m.!

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So all signs point to increased attendance at Major League Soccer games, a new network TV contract for the league and soccer taking its place as a "major" sport in the United States, right?

Not so fast.

Remember the Women's World Cup final in 1999? Fans packed the Rose Bowl to watch the U.S. team beat China in penalty kicks and Brandi Chastain rip off her shirt in celebration, making her an instant celebrity.

In the aftermath of that historic victory, there was much debate about the feasibility of a women's professional soccer league. Now in its second year, the Women's United Soccer Association is struggling in both attendance and TV viewership, leading some to believe that the league's end is just around the bend.

Soccer has undeniably grown in popularity with today's youth. Unlike football, basketball and baseball, kids can play soccer in an organized league - indoors or outdoors - any time of year. The youngest players on this year's U.S. national team were all part of the youth soccer boom of the last 10-15 years.

Also undeniable is the interest in youth soccer. Hundreds of people gathered Saturday - and will again today - at the Hagerstown Soccer Club to watch 10- to 17-year-olds play in the Mason-Dixon Cup.

But somewhere between the youth leagues and the college level, the audience wanders. Perhaps its because their kids are no longer involved. Whatever the case, interest among the casual fans wanes dramatically.

The World Cup will bring viewers in, but will the fans that are gained stay?

In tennis, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open grab fair TV ratings, but how many of those same viewers watch the ATP Masters Series in Hamburg?

The College World Series is an ESPN staple every June. But how many college baseball games are even televised, outside of that?

Until the U.S. team is consistently in the round of 16 in the World Cup and keeps knocking off teams that it isn't supposed to beat, soccer will continue as it is in this country - a great particpation sport for kids and a once-every-four-years event on television.

Mark Keller is sports editor of The Herald-Mail. His column appears every Sunday. He can be reached at keller@herald-mail.com or 301-733-5131 ext. 2332.

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