American soccer searching for identity as sport grows by leaps and kicks

Courtesy Photo/CSUSB Members of Cal State University, San Bernardino soccer team are beneficiaries of boom in popularity of the sport. The 2013-14 team advanced to the NCAA West Region finals, capping best season in school history. Coach Travis Clarke on right. Assistant coaches were Kelsey Gudgeon and Mark Peters

For those who find soccer boring, you are in the minority. It’s estimated that half the world’s population of seven billion people watched the 2014 World Cup. The skill level is maxed when countries perform on the world stage. There is no sport that takes on such a national and cultural characteristic style like soccer. It is the world’s most popular sport everywhere except in America.

Local experts say America is still trying to establish its soccer identity. “America has tried to get by using sheer power. That works in other sports but not in soccer,” said Martin Maguire, area director of the Redlands Pateadores Soccer Club. “You can tell that America is trying to do the right thing. They are now trying to control the ball. America is building its soccer culture,” said Maguire, a native of England whose coached and played in both countries for 25 years.

“The World Cup really sparked things in America. The U.S. is developing its brand of soccer. A blend of countries, not flashy,” said Scott Haydis, who is president of the Inland Empire Soccer League in Loma Linda. Both Haydis and Maguire feel that it will take another generation before soccer is mentioned with football, basketball and baseball. “I was a baseball player. My grandchildren will be soccer players,” said Haydis. “It’s taking America a while.”

Haydis pointed to an Internet fan club that counts former soccer great Pele with 17 million more followers than LeBron James. It will take Americans a while to appreciate the beauty of soccer. It’s about the anticipation of the goal. We’re used to instant gratification.”

Maguire explained that America’s geographical size, weather and melting pot of cultures has made soccer a slower sell. “It might take a few generations, but it will happen.” Maguire said when he came to America 15 years ago, it was hard to teach soccer because it wasn’t televised much. “In England, everyone watches soccer. It makes it easier to coach. In America, the kids hadn’t watched soccer.” Maguire feels that American National team coach Jurgin Klinsmann will lead the country in the right direction.” Maguire added that it is mandatory for those with professional aspirations to go to college.

“America needs more soccer stars and more competitive professional teams,” said Rafael Lara, who has served 18 years in numerous positions at the soccer development level. He currently is associated with the Ontario Arsenal FC. Lara says stars like David Beckham come to America, but past their prime, ready to retire. Lara called Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, America’s leading name players. “It’s cool to follow athletes from high school into the pro’s. We need more of that in soccer,” observed Lara. He said that America must learn that soccer is a team sport. “You can’t win with four players.”

Cal State University, San Bernardino women’s soccer coach Travis Clarke competed in 14 different countries when he was a member of the All-Navy team. In those countries, the best athletes usually play soccer. “The Kobe Bryant’s in America are not necessarily playing soccer but that is changing,” says Clarke, who just guided Cal State to its most successful season. Clarke feels that American men’s soccer was once considered hard working, blue-collar, however that style is in transition now that Klinsmann is the national coach.

Clarke pointed out that 600 million televisions were tuned to the World Cup championship match. That total is more than all the recent super bowls combined. He said Klinsmann is instilling a European style of play in America that is more technical and tactical in transition. “The U.S. is such a melting pot of cultures, that our style is hard to identify. There is no country in the world that has so many nationalities on its team. Its hard to put all that together.”

Clarke said that while the U.S. men are still behind the rest of the world, the U.S. women are ranked number-1. The men are ranked at a respectable #16. “Soccer has been male dominated in other countries. Not in America. The opportunities for women to make a living in soccer has increased in the past 15 years. There’s a variety of pro leagues, club and college coaching jobs for women.” Clarke says women’s soccer will escalate in popularity after its 2015 World Cup in Canada.

“It takes a very long time to learn the motor skills needed to excel in soccer. Maybe Kobe Bryant can go out and catch a touchdown pass or some else (Michael Jordan) could hit a home run. On the other hand, there are no pro baseball, football or basketball players who can transition into soccer–it’s much more unforgiving,” said Clarke.


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