Not too long ago, Detroit was at the center of soccer in the United States.
Detroit's Ford Field was in the spotlight on June 7 as the United States men's team played host to cross-border rival Canada in the opening round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The red, white and blue didn't disappoint, treating a solid crowd of 28,209 to a 2-0 victory as the new owner of the Silverdome undoubtedly watched closely in the distance.
Andreas Apostolopoulos, who bought the Pontiac-based stadium in 2009 for a mere $583,000 after it was vacated by the Detroit Lions, has radical plans to re-structure the facility to into a two-story sports complex with the stadium's upper deck serving as a 30,000 seat soccer area. The goal is to ultimately lure a Major League Soccer team to Detroit.
While the final destination is to attract the men's top North American league to Southeast Michigan, it's currently the women that have captured the nation's attention.
Last Sunday the U.S. ladies pulled off one of the greatest wins in the history of the game, regardless of gender. After falling behind Brazil 2-1 in extra time on some shoddy officiating, Abby Wambach headed in a perfect cross from Megan Rapinoe to knot the score in the 122nd minute. In essence, Wambach tied the game with one minute left, a rare feat in a game that features little scoring. Perhaps even more fittingly she scored in the time added on by the officials after Brazilian defender Erika feigned an injury for several minutes trying to milk the clock.
Did I mention they did all of this with only 10 players?
The U.S. won the game on penalty kicks, surprisingly to the delight of the mostly impartial German crowd. Poor officiating against the Stars and Stripes coupled with Brazil's sudden "injury" epidemic quickly tilted the crowd in the U.S.'s favor. It was a comforting sight for a country that isn't exactly beloved around the world.
With the team now set to play Japan in the final on Sunday, there's a question lingering that gets asked every time an international tournament such as this ends: will soccer finally catch on in the U.S.? The answer is murky at best.
Apostolopoulos obviously believes the sport can work in Metro Detroit, a town that is already crowded with teams based in all four of the major North American pro leagues. MLS plays only 34 games in a season, meaning the team wouldn't have to draw huge crowds over a long period of time to be successful. Playing 30 miles north of Detroit in suburban Pontiac may help as well by drawing more fans from mid-Michigan like Flint and Saginaw, both of which are a short trip down I-75. Last year, the Silverdome drew a solid 30,514 fans to watch an exhibition between European squads AC Milan and Panathinaikos.
But in terms of money, soccer isn't quite there yet. MLS has consistently lost money in its 15 years of existence; only three of the league's teams reported profits in 2007. The highest valued franchise is the Los Angeles Galaxy at $100 million (via Forbes in 2008); even Detroit's "least valuable team," the Red Wings, is worth $315 million. The Lions, estimated to be worth $817 million, are most valued team in the state, but they rank just 27th of the 32 NFL clubs.
Who's the most valuable team in America? The Dallas Cowboys of course, worth $1.8 billion. In the U.S., American football is still top dog.
But where men's soccer lacks, women's soccer thrives. The women in this country are head and shoulders above the men when it comes to results, having won two of the five FIFA World Cups, which they are now shooting to win again on Sunday. They've won three gold medals in four attempts at the Olympics. The 1999 World Cup final held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, in which the U.S. famously beat China on penalty kicks, remains the largest crowd to ever watch a women's sporting event, drawing over 90,000 fans.
The men on the other hand haven't had the same success. Their best finish in the World Cup is third—way back in 1930. Since then, they haven't finished higher than eighth. They won bronze and silver at the Olympics, but that was in 1904 (in a rather intriguing fashion, the U.S. fielded two teams at those games—and still lost).
The problem with the women is that after this international tournament ends we likely won't hear from them again until the World Cup resumes in 2015 in Canada. Women's Professional Soccer, the top women's league, has little media exposure and only six teams, mostly based on the East Coast. At least MLS gets a game on ESPN every now and then.
Made stars by their extraordinary tournament run, most will likely slip back into obscurity on the American sporting front.
No matter what happens this Sunday, it probably won't affect how the game is viewed back home. While soccer is wildly popular on the amateur level, the pros for some reason haven't been able to bring that popularity with them to the big stage. It's an unfortunate side effect of the multi-sport American athlete, who eventually kick soccer to the curb for more popular sports like football, basketball and baseball.
International tournaments like the Olympics and World Cup always spark interest because of the national pride involved, but people usually resume not caring once it's all over. If the U.S. men's national soccer team could find more substantial success on the international scene maybe it would give soccer a boost back home. Results or not, the men's team draws more interest than the women for the simple fact that the teams they play have world-known household names. Beyond Marta and possibly now Wambach, the women have little to offer on that front.
Unfortunately, soccer will likely remain a second-tier sport in the United States. And this is coming from a former soccer player. Even at my small private school where the sport was somewhat popular and the team was actually good, football was still king—despite having a program that to this day has never posted a winning season.
But maybe that's not such a bad thing. A season-long lockout nearly destroyed the NHL back in 2004-05, but the league has found a home as more of a niche sport and is thriving. It's producing a profit and has found a national television home with Versus and NBC, with which the league signed a lucrative 10-year deal this year.
Hockey works in some markets, and others not so well. Teams like Detroit, Toronto and Montreal thrive because they are traditional hockey locations with strong regional ties to the sport, while others like Phoenix and Atlanta struggle due to the simple fact that hockey is not native to those areas.
Perhaps soccer can one day find that right mix of areas willing to support it. Soccer has to accept it will never be the NFL, NBA or even the NHL; if it tries to compete with those leagues it will surely be doomed. It remains to be seen if Detroit is one of those locations, but early returns from the games in the area are promising. Soccer can work in the U.S.; it just has to find out where.