Friday, July 20, 2007

Moving Across the Pond and Onto the Concrete

Sports of the Times
July 21, 2007

Ever since he signed a five-year deal that could be worth as much as $250 million, David Beckham has pledged to lead a soccer crusade in the United States and push soccer, once and for all, into the American psyche.

This push will be as intriguing to watch as Beckham’s performance on the field.

Major League Soccer enjoyed one of its finest moments Thursday night without its biggest star making so much as a kick. Beckham was nursing an injured ankle, so the American public didn’t see him do his thing. Some critics wonder if that will ever happen. Still, Thursday’s game between the M.L.S. All-Stars and Celtic FC wasn’t about playing; it was about presence, and Beckham’s was magnetic.

This was a good night for soccer: a sold-out crowd, a great stadium and a close game. Two Hispanic players — one born in the United States, the other outside it — scored a goal in the 2-0 victory for the All-Stars.

Don Garber, the M.L.S. commissioner, said the nationality of the two goal scorers underlined the league’s persistent theme. “We are a league that represents the New America,” Garber said. The New America, he added, is “diverse, young and increasingly Hispanic.”

Soccer has caught on in the United States, largely in sprawling suburbs where two decades of youths have grown up playing the sport.

For the United States to reach the next level in international competition, the sport must consistently draw from a larger and heretofore untapped pool of talent. That pool, experts say, is located in Inner City, U.S.A., where the games of choice have been football, basketball, track and field and baseball.

If soccer can tap into this market, the sport will achieve the traction it desperately wants and needs in the United States. The conundrum for soccer executives in the United States is how to attract new — and much-needed — talent to the sport.

Importing Beckham is a major step. But the key to reaching an untapped pool of inner-city talent could lie in the hands of Victor MacFarlane, an African-American real estate developer who, along with his partner, the investor William Chang, paid $33 million for D.C. United this year.

MacFarlane, 56, was born in Ohio and played football, basketball and baseball. Soccer wasn’t on his radar until his five children began playing. His son became a serious soccer player and played through high school.

Buying D.C. United was a combination of love of sport and love of the memories that sport provided. As a business opportunity, MacFarlane said he believes that soccer’s popularity “will jump the pond.”

We’ll see about that, but I do believe that the key for soccer to gain traction in the inner city is to bring the sport to the people, making soccer part of the economic and cultural ecostructure of the community.

MacFarlane and Chang want to build a privately financed, 27,000-seat, soccer-only stadium at Poplar Point in the southeast section of Washington. They also want to build a sports academy that will have an academic curriculum to complement soccer.

“You have to bring the sport to the community,” MacFarlane said.

Garber said yesterday that soccer has two distinct “minority” initiatives in the United States, in terms of both fan development and player development. One initiative is aimed at Hispanics, the other at African-Americans.

“Hispanics love the game, soccer is their game,” Garber said. “We want them to make our league their league.”

African-Americans are not as broadly involved with soccer, as fans or as players. Basketball and football, with their extensive recruiting networks, traditions of providing college scholarships for top athletes and lucrative compensation at the professional level, appear to have a cultural chokehold on the African-American community.

This is changing, however, and soccer could benefit. The N.B.A., with its pursuit of globalization, has opened the door for soccer, which covets the inner-city talent pool college and professional basketball have in some ways taken for granted.

I asked Garber how soccer, in its quest for new talent, would avoid the strip mining that took place, especially in basketball and football, in which young black athletes were carted out of the community. What will the community receive in return for growing yet another sports enterprise, in this case soccer?

“We want to introduce this great game to kids who have not been exposed,” Garber said. “It’s a game where you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be a great athlete. As long as you can touch the ball with your foot, you can play.”

To the point about strip mining, Garber said: “We are generations away from producing a David Beckham. We want to create an opportunity for them to be part of 18 million kids who play the game and love the game.”

The continued quest to grow soccer in the United States is an intriguing venture. Beckham is one answer, but investors like MacFarlane hold the key.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A generally insightful article. I think that if the US ever wants to make real progress then kids will have to play street soccer, not just in the inner city but everywhere.

Aside from is a joke when the commish of your league says "you don't have to be a great athlete" to play. Poor idiot probably never played.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Daryl said...

I love soccer mainly because I was exposed it from an early age and have been playing ever since. I've been thinking for years that the sport would see explosive growth in the United States if it could get more inner city kids turned on to soccer. It's a great game. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to play or even a large field necessarily. Just a ball, a little open space and some desire.

3:06 PM  

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