The pregame festivities ahead of Saturday’s friendly between FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli were vastly different than most tailgates at Michigan Stadium. International music echoed throughout the parking lots as people from all over the country prepared to see some of the world’s most talented soccer players.
But for the magnitude of the teams playing, the number of fans in attendance was a relatively mere 60,000, filling just over half of the seats at Michigan Stadium.
One of the main purposes of the International Champions Cup is to improve the following of soccer in America and the audience’s demographic showed that it’s clearly working — some were from as far as Texas and North Carolina.
“It’s crazy because these teams barely come and you have to see these teams over there in their country,” said Javier from Chicago. “For them to come here, it’s kinda like, you know what, one-time opportunity, you gotta take it and come to the game and just enjoy it.”
But these fans who traveled to get the chance to watch premier soccer grew up in countries whose cultures idolized soccer — Poland, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica and more. They were raised around the sport and treat it like Americans might baseball or football.
Since the turn of the century, the United States men’s soccer team has repeatedly failed to position itself as World Cup contender. The MLS has grown, but still finds itself a league where the biggest names are already past their prime and the best young players don’t stay for long. And though the women’s national soccer team has won the last two World Cups, the sport finds itself as an afterthought to American football, basketball, and baseball.
“I don’t want to say it’s humiliating, but I want to say that it’s a reminder of what we could (be) if we decide to allocate our resources the right way,” said Parker from Washington D.C. who got into the sport through a college class. “I just feel like, I think we’re at a point in the narrative of professional sports where people are getting tired of football for a number of reasons that are all valid. And you’re going to see more kids getting access to soccer and traveling more and being more competitive at younger ages, so I think the future is bright, honestly.”
This sentiment was one that fans throughout the stadium shared.
“Soccer is drawing more fans as time goes by, but I think (American fans) are liking the star players here,” said Oscar, a 35-year FC Barcelona fan originally from Honduras. “They have the financial means to make it happen. But it’s just the way they do it that’s not really relevant. They’re bringing not-quality players from overseas.
“It’s also just that the way they structure the (MLS) without relegation and stuff like that, doesn’t make it that competitive compared to the European leagues.”
Oscar brought up a valid point — bringing attention to the domestic league is a key component to increasing the fandom of the sport in America. However, the MLS struggled to get going in the first place, something many European leagues were devoid of, as it was just another shot at an American soccer league that became subject to a tight salary cap space due to previously failed attempts.
Now, with the MLS finally taking off and salary cap space being created, albeit at a relatively slow pace, the competition of the league is something that takes a lot more effort to change. Though the United Soccer League, or the USL, is sometimes considered to be a minor league to the MLS, it doesn’t receive the attention or respect that the English Championship receives as the next level down from the English Premier League, eliminating the current attempt at relegation. Moreover, MLS teams haven’t participated in international tournaments like European teams who get a shot at the UEFA Champions League every year. Such changes cannot be made during a single offseason, either, but they are definitely something to think about.
Javier, a 21-year-old who has played soccer for a majority of his life, offered a player’s perspective — though signing big-name players and increasing domestic competition is important, surrounding today’s youth with the right coaching staff is what will make soccer a staple in the United States.
“I feel like the United States needs to bring the coaches from other countries to teach these young players,” Javier said. “Their playing style, their tactics. It’s a different type of soccer to develop.”
But the optimism remains present among these fans, and they think that events like the International Champions Cup combined with more attention to soccer players’ development is driving the sport’s growing popularity in America.
“I think soccer is growing (in the United States), and I think in 10 years, 12 years, the US can win the World Cup,” said Rubin, another fan from Chicago. “I think the US is doing great with the minor league teams, if that’s what you want to call it. Kids nowadays, it’s such a diverse (talent pool) that they’re going to have a strong team. In 8 years, they’re going to be one of the strongest teams in the world.”
Now, the expectations are slightly unrealistic considering that the country’s talent is nowhere near that of powerhouses like Germany and France. But the resources and spotlight are there for soccer to take off in the United States. Now, it’s up to the nation to focus on building a culture that treats soccer like a premier sport, similar to the countries where many of these fans come from. And it all starts with events like the International Champions Cup.
“I hope the people had a great match, that they enjoyed watching it,” said FC Barcelona midfielder Frenkie De Jong. “(I hope) that they got a bit inspired but it’s all up to their chance (now).”