Copa America Centenario is the Next Step for American Soccer

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by DENY GALLAGHER

OP-ED: From the neon lights of the nightclubs to the countless cafés around Paris, it was impossible to ignore the signs that Euro 2016 is coming.

I should know. I was just there.

The logo of the tournament is on the baguettes. It’s taken over the labels of the wine. Heck, there is even a giant Ferris wheel situated at the end of the Champs de L’Esseye with the logo and flag of each team in the tournament plastered all over it.

While Zlatan may be on his way out of the City of Lights, the beautiful game is not.

After a seven-hour flight, I touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport on the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend. A little less than 10 miles away is MetLife Stadium, home of the Copa America Centenario Final. But to the average traveler stepping out of Terminal C, there is no indication that a significant international cup final is imminent.

This sheds light on an all too common problem for soccer in this country. Visibility.

Just last week, legendary sports talk show host Mike Francesa went on a rant about how the average New York sports fan doesn’t care that the championship of the Americas is coming to the Big Apple. And for the most part, he is right. Attendance for the United States Men’s National Team has been near or below 10,000 for their last four home matches and MLS national TV ratings have been averaging about 250,000 viewers this season.

Not a good sign for soccer’s “next frontier.”

To those of us that live within the “soccer bubble”, this tournament is all we have read about for years. From its controversial creation to disagreements over who will run the tournament, the Copa America Centenario has been front-page news.

However, there is a different sect of America that knows none of the back-story of why this tournament is so important for the United States. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the FS1 commercial with Kobe Bryant, many average sports fans would still be in the dark about it.

Like it or not, this tournament is for them. And if the game is going to continue to grow, the U.S. needs the thousands of people who gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park or New York’s Time Square during the last World Cup to be return customers. The biggest appeal that U.S. Soccer has is a sense of national pride. Combine that with our nation’s love for winning at anything, and that can turn a Saturday afternoon match into appointment television.

There will be a lot of people over the next month that wish that America could take part in the Euros because it has a certain prestige and aura about it. For the most part, South American soccer is an unknown commodity in this country. Only recently have domestic clubs begun to sign players from the countries that will partake in this tournament. This unknown has undoubtedly stunted the pre-tournament hype, but scheduling a Copa America the summer after the tournament was held in Chile may cause South American fans to be wary of the Centenario’s validity as well.

For this tournament to be successful, the United States needs to perform at a high level to get the general public into it. With that said, the tournament also needs Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil to make a run. It is fitting that in a country were star power reigns supreme that the financial success of this tournament will come down to how long the likes of Messi and James Rodriguez stay in the mix.

The Copa America Centenario is an opportunity to prove to the average American and to the world that the business of soccer in this country is viable. While the geographic lines may be blurred between support of the Stars and Stripes and El Tri, money is the only barometer needed to broadcast to the world that we are open for business. This means packed stadium, a demand for official tournament merchandise, and the continuation of our individual social media crusades to spread our passion to those that have yet to be touched by the Gospel of Futbol.

New York may not be Paris, and the Copa America Centenario may not be Euro 2016. But it is the next step in becoming the footballing nation America never knew it wanted to become.

  • Leo Glickman

    Oh this old saw again. How many times does it have to be shown that international tournaments — even when the USA excels — never results in increases in the popularity of the professional game in this country. A huge Argentina v. Brazil final on our shores will not impact the decision of the casual central Ohio sports fan to attend a Columbus Crew game. And it’s the club game that makes the soccer culture, not the sporadic, celebratory international game.

    • slowleftarm

      You don’t think the game increases with each world cup? Of course it does. If even a couple of percent of the casual fans who follow the world cup continue following club soccer afterwards, that’s a lot of people.

      One of my colleagues was following the last world cup and I took him to RBA that summer. He’s gone back a couple of times since and he follows RBNY now. We talk about the most recent game etc. at work. Maybe he’ll never become a season ticket holder or huge fan of the club or the sport but soccer needs casual fans too, just like any other sport.

      • rick

        Yes, Sorta.
        Interest in the game spikes each world cup and overall interest in the game is growing.

        The bad news is that it doesn’t seem to be bringing MLS with it at a comparable speed.

        MLS is growing, but TV ratings and Google/Facebook traffic show other leagues growing faster. In other words MLS is losing market share.
        Mexico and England are the main winners.

        • slowleftarm

          MLS attendance continues to rise (up 3% at this point from last year’s record pace). TV ratings are disappointing but it takes time to grow a league from scratch.

  • ElMetrofan

    Good article that shows the lack of “visibility” in NJ or the US in general. In NJ, the only place where I’ve seen the Copa promoted was in Chupitos in Elizabeth. Probably because of the large hispanic crowd.

  • james w

    think the copa America helps general awareness and casual fans, I looked into tix and they were pretty high priced – $100 range so family went to a Red Bulls game instead, maybe I’ll check again and see if anything more reasonably priced…

  • Copa America is the biggest association football tournament in American continents with out any doubt and this centenario championship that comes once for 100 years has great expectations anyways my support always with Brazil but unfortunately we miss Neymer.