On Tallahassee as part of the American soccer revolution
The World Cup is only a few months away, which means it’s about that time for America to start pretending like it cares about soccer again. Time to pop the old FIFA disc into the Xbox and get into the spirit for soccer’s greatest tournament. At the very least it can be said there’s a patriotic passion when it comes to a sport that hasn’t always been cheered within US borders.
In Europe and South America soccer is religion. In the United States it’s a seldom-celebrated holiday.
Slowly but surely, however, soccer is spreading in popularity, as much as football junkies would like to deny it. America is finally taking interest in the sport it long resented, and it’s evident in national viewership. Just recently, NBC signed a deal with the Premier League in England, giving it the rights to broadcast up to 380 EPL games a year.
Not to mention the MLS is coming on strong, nearing its 20th year of existence. Founded in 1996 with just 10 teams, America’s highest level professional soccer league has continued to grow. Today there are 19 teams, and it is expected to add at least 5 more by 2020.
Granted, it took a few European stars to really generate some notoriety. Thierry Henry and David Beckham have drawn the interest of many American soccer fans, boosting the appeal of the MLS.
Matt Potter, currently in his first year at FSU after moving from England, has taken notice of the expanding interest. “If you talk to the people who are actually enthusiastic about soccer, they really know their stuff,” said Potter.
There are a great deal of people playing the sport as well. Any day of the week a soccer match can be found at the intramural fields on campus (so long as they’re open, that is).
“The Americans who are really into soccer are actually really good. I was surprised,” said Potter.
Soccer is fast becoming a favorite sport of America’s younger demographics. In 2012 Rich Luker, who is the founder of the ESPN Sports Poll, released findings that soccer had jumped to the second most popular sport amongst Americans from ages 12-24. Quietly, interest in soccer has jumped the likes of the NBA, MLB, and NHL. Nowadays, Lionel Messi is more recognizable than Dwayne Wade.
Look no further than the state of Florida to see the effects of soccer’s rise in popularity. Of those five teams expected to join the MLS by 2020, two will belong to the state of Florida, in Orlando and Miami. But it’s not just professional soccer that is growing. Youth soccer is well-established throughout the state, especially in North Florida.
Tallahassee is home to multiple youth soccer clubs and is gradually becoming part of the soccer culture that is present in the rest of the state. Tallahassee United Football Club, Associated Soccer Group, and Top of Florida Soccer Club are the three biggest organizations in the city.
Lucas Martorana is the Director of Select for TUFC and has witnessed the development of Tallahassee youth soccer during his three years there. He got involved with the club as the coach of a couple of younger boys teams, but as a program director he has been able to oversee far more players.
“Tallahassee is a relatively small soccer community compared to places like Jacksonville or Orlando,” said Martorana. “Growth, in reality, comes from the youth. It starts when they’re youngest.”
And that is exactly the focus of TUFC and its contemporaries. Lately, clubs like TUFC and ASG have been merging with bigger recreational organizations so that they can work toward the development of a much greater number of young players. Martorana says that is the way players develop and get involved in programs like Select, which allow them to become even higher-level athletes.
In the past few years, the U17 boys team at TUFC has been making its way into the Florida State Cup, which features the best teams in the state. Each year they have made it deeper into the tournament. “That group has stayed together. The boys have stayed committed, the parents have stayed committed,” said Martorana.
Local soccer clubs are always looking to expand, and as Martorana explains, there are so many kids out there that have yet to be introduced to soccer. TUFC has been expanding its reach into the community, setting up free clinics for kids who would like to get involved.
“Kids want to run around and play. There’s this appeal where, “yeah! we’re doing, we’re moving,” said Martorana.
As far as soccer’s popularity in the country, Martorana would say it’s definitely on the rise. “I think Americans are starting to pick up on how this game is so simple, yet so complex. Soccer is a chess match.”
Believe it or not, the video game culture that parents often loathe is largely responsible for their children’s interest in soccer. FIFA is as popular as it’s ever been, and the more you play, the more you learn.
“My guys learn more about players and formation and movement from FIFA than they do from watching the game,” Martorana said, laughing.
But the MLS is playing its part as well. It’s growth, paired with the presence of recognizable national team players in the league, has buoyed the game. The rest of the world may not care about the MLS, but that’s okay; it doesn’t need to. So long as the fans here are behind it, it’s doing its job for the game of soccer.
For now, all eyes are turned to the national team and its journey to Brazil. There’s no question it will have the support of the fans at home. In fact, that’s something Matt Potter says he’s jealous of. “The USA has that fighting mentality, like ‘we can do it.’ England almost goes into it not believing they can win.”
Nothing will be said about England’s enthusiasm, but America is definitely excited to see its team in action. Maybe, just maybe, that spotlight won’t fade after this summer’s World Cup is over.
by MATT SIMONS / staff writer