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THE WORLD SAYS U.S. SOCCER HAS ARRIVED. IT'S TIME FOR US TO GET ON BOARD.



By Luke Cyphers

You’ve heard the breathless predictions before. You’ve heard them for 30 years. Soccer will take over. It’s the next big thing. It’s inevitable. Look at all the youth leagues. Look at all the immigrants. And yet, when you finally succumbed to the hype, when you finally looked, this is what you saw: empty seats, boring games, second-rate American athletes who lacked charisma and power and charm.
You had other options, so you stopped watching. But then, while your head was turned, it happened: American soccer arrived. Savvy investors, companies and tastemakers noticed. So did every football-crazy fan around the world. But you, well, you won’t be fooled again. You want hard proof before you’ll commit.

Okay. Here it is, in the form of a 23-year-old physical marvel from Olney, Md., named Oguchi Onyewu. He’s a homegrown, corn-fed, weight-trained soccer player, the kind they didn’t used to make here. He’s 6'4", 210 pounds, the kind of athlete who used to be abducted by the high school football coach every fall, then turned over to the basketball coach. But Gooch didn’t get the memo. “When I hit high school,” he says, “I just liked soccer better.”

And soccer is better for it. Onyewu’s combination of size, strength and agility make him not only an able defender but a scoring threat on set pieces. He’d make a tough NFL matchup; in soccer, he’s a monster. Currently a popular star for the Standard Liege club in Belgium, he’s being eyed by a soccer team even casual fans recognize: Manchester United.

There’s more evidence. Take Onyewu’s teammate on the U.S. national team, Eddie Johnson. He’s the one who’s faster than everyone else - the one built for the open field and the extra base - as he dashes across Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on the way to one of his seven goals in World Cup qualifiers. Johnson, a six-foot, 180-pound ball of lightning, wouldn’t have made it to the pitch two decades ago. The Florida football factory wouldn’t have let him. But the kid from the Daytona Beach projects tried soccer at 10 and found a coach who nurtured his talent, and by 15 he was in the Adidas-sponsored Olympic Development Program, traveling the globe and discovering he could make a living playing this game. Now the FC Dallas striker earns $875,000 a year as the second-highest-paid player in MLS. “My friends used to say to me, ‘Go kick that ball around with those white boys,’ “ says the 21-year-old Johnson. “Now they’re my No. 1 fans.”

Actually, they’re not. U.S. soccer’s biggest fans at the moment are money men like Philip Anschutz. The Denver-based billionaire, who has backed MLS for 11 years, is digging in and spurring a stadium boom that, within two years, will put the game in packed, 25,000-seat grounds rather than half-empty NFL houses. The fans are the suits at Adidas who just signed a $150 million deal with MLS, and the execs at Nike who - in an ad resembling the Declaration of Independence - proclaim that a soccer revolution is coming. This support is all new. This is what was missing when soccer’s arrival was trumpeted in the past. From a marketing standpoint, soccer is where the NBA was in, say, 1980, just before the sneaker wars made David Stern a genius.

More important, soccer is where football was in the late 1950s, a marginal sport about to be lifted by television - in soccer’s case, high-definition television. The new generation of TVs flying off shelves is perfect for the world game. When people see soccer on HD, they’ll finally see the sports speed and emotion and color, the little things that went unseen on little screens. Says New England Revolution owner Jonathan Kraft, “On HD, its finally going to translate to Americans.”

Need more proof? The guys who have been cashing NFL checks for years see it all clearly. Rupert Murdoch has devoted a whole U.S. cable channel - Fox Soccer - to the sport. The Hunt (Chiefs) and Kraft (Patriots) families are charter MLS owners. And Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer just bought Man U. Meanwhile, for the ultimate in clich cachet, hip-hop’s Jay-Z has made noise about buying London’s Arsenal football club.

None of these guys got rich missing trends. This is what’s been developing while we all ignored the game the rest of the planet loves. Players like Johnson hone their skills here in MLS, then use international matches as coming-out parties. Players like Onyewu branch out to earn money and respect overseas. Fans from Dublin, Tel Aviv and Tegucigalpa increasingly say the same thing, that the seventh-ranked Americans are good, they’re getting better, and maybe sooner rather than later, they’ll be good enough to win the World Cup. “You can see it coming,” says Itai Reicher Atir, an Israeli fan. “In the next decade, the U.S. will win it all.”

For once, American talent is beating hype to the punch. Which means that in the near future, possibly when this year’s World Cup is over, Eddie Johnson will see his real dream come true: “I want Jay-Z or Diddy wearing my jersey in a rap video.” Then soccer will finally be able to say, “Made you look.” And this time, we’ll be happy we did.