RFK stadium is shaking. Not in the mild, possibly even metaphorical, sense that commentators sometimes use to describe an energetic arena, the concrete beneath my feet is swaying like I’m near the epicenter of a low-grade earthquake. The referee just blew his whistle to start the Major League Soccer playoff matchup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, and old, battered Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy stadium feels like it might collapse. The main reason is the District Ultras, the home team’s fan club. About a 1000 of them are 10 or 15 rows down from me, and they are jumping in near-perfect unison while chanting “United! United! United!” A grizzled, tattooed man in a black tank top rises out of the mass and faces the crowd. He shouts something, waves his arms, and the chant changes. The stadium shakes for about five minutes into the match when the noise from the Ultras settles down to a dull roar.
Sitting above the heads of these passionate supporters is a stark reminder of soccer’s place in America. You see, RFK used to be a football stadium. When the Washington Redskins moved out around 10 years ago, DC United moved in. The soccer team, however, does not draw enough fans to fill up the cavernous arena, so the top deck is closed. All around the stadium are thousands of empty yellow and maroon seats that will probably never be occupied again. The scene is perfectly analogous to state of soccer in America; a small but dedicated fan base surrounded on all sides by reminders of their second-class status.
Halfway around the world, Emerson Hyndman is cold. It’s a bleak and windy October afternoon in London, and the Texan is standing in the middle of Fulham Football Club’s practice field, craning his neck to hear his coach’s instructions. He’s saying something about switching the ball from one side of the field to the other. The possession drill starts up again, and Hyndman is glad to be moving. He floats through the game, picking passes with ease and laying a tackle every now and again. In four days, he’ll start against Derby County in a League Cup clash.
Hyndman is a rising star in American soccer. At the age of 18, he’s made multiple starts for Fulham and has appeared for the national team. Fans and coaches expect a lot from him when he matures as a player. But when compared with other players his age across the globe, he’s average.
No one will pay 35 million pounds for him as Paris Saint-Germain did for Brazilian teenage defender Marquinhos last year. He plays in the second division of English soccer while other players his age like Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling and Adnan Januzaj ply their trade for some of the best teams in the first. Just as the DC United fans were emblematic of soccer fandom in America, Hyndman symbolizes American soccer on the world stage. And that is, in short, outmatched in almost every capacity.
But soccer fans from Orlando to Juneau, do not despair. And those of you who see soccer as an insidious foreign import that’s turning our youth into flopping grass fairies, don’t gloat just yet. While American soccer is second-class on and off the field today, this will not always be so. Soccer’s rise in America is inevitable. It will not be quick, and it will not be easy. But with time and investment, American soccer will emerge as a top sport at home and a force to be reckoned with abroad.
These two factors, fandom and player development, are inextricably intertwined. More fans mean more money and motivation to develop good players. More good players mean more people will want to watch them. But the latter must lead the way. The demographics that tend to support American soccer are growing rapidly, and the game will grow with them regardless of the quality of players the country produces. Because if there is one thing Americans like, it’s a winner. If Americans can win on the world stage of soccer, fandom will follow in greater and greater numbers. For a variety of reasons, soccer is the game of the future. Growth is unavoidable. How fast this growth occurs will be determined by the quality of player America can produce. So how can soccer compete with other sports in popularity at home and competitively abroad? Let’s take a look.
Jozy Altidore is a freak. North of six feet tall and two hundred pounds, he wouldn’t look out of place playing middle linebacker for Dallas Cowboys. He’s absurdly strong, capable of posting up defenders like he’s Dwight Howard, yet surprisingly light on his feet. Seeing the American’s hulking presence steaming around the soccer field, it’s easy to imagine why coaches put him in their teams.
Thomas Muller is not a freak. Skinny and gangly with too-big feet and a too-small head, the German looks more like a teenager in the throes of puberty than a professional soccer player. On the field he does nothing $ashy. He works hard defensively, and when he does touch the ball, it’s never more than once or twice. Muller never intimidated anyone by his looks alone; a writer for !e Guardian once likened him to a “junior doctor on a fun run.”