Former LSU soccer All-American Rachel Yepez remembers a time when this country didn’t understand the difference between a corner kick and a goal kick, nor the difference between a yellow card and a red card.
Former Vandebilt Catholic boys’ soccer coach Matt Kelso remembers that time, too, touting that he can recall the days in America when it was difficult to find anyone who was passionate about soccer – the sport that he has loved dearly for the better part of his life.
Boy, how things have changed!
Our country currently has a fever – soccer fever, to be precise, as TV ratings have soared through the roof nationally for the entire 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Locally, the upward swing is part of a trend that’s been going on a while now as more and more children are learning soccer at an early age.
We’ve got the fever, and it’s likely not going away anytime soon.
“Absolutely we do,” Kelso said when asked if there’s more interest locally in soccer than in years past. “There’s no denying that it’s grown tremendously. All of the numbers are up. That’s not a coincidence. There is more interest in the sport.”
The United States played its Round of 16 match with Belgium on Tuesday afternoon, and no score was available at our press-time.
But regardless of the outcome, those asked this week tout that soccer isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. It’s a sport that is maturing from a niche sport to a game with a more mainstream following.
“I think it’s hard to argue that it’s here to stay,” said David Breaux, a sports fan from Houma who took in a U.S. match at a local eatery this past week. “I’ve never enjoyed soccer, but I’m glued to this now. I just think it’s different when you have a horse in the race, you know? How can we not cheer for our American boys making history out there?
USA SUCCESS SPARKING PEAK IN VIEWERSHIP
Breaux seems to be 100 percent dead-on in his statement. Soccer is growing abroad, but there’s absolutely no doubt that the growth is heavily weighted on the marked success that the United States men’s national team has had in recent years.
Once a program laughed at around the global stage, the Americans have steadily ascended in the past 20-30 years to become a legitimate Top 10-20 side in the world.
Before the start of the 2014 World Cup, the Americans were ranked No. 13 in the FIFA world rankings.
Players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are not yet retired, but are already widely regarded as among the best players in the history of American soccer.
“My children love it – they absolutely love Jozy Altidore, so we’re a bit bummed he’s hurt and not playing,” said Bourg native Randy Billiot who watched the American’s match with Germany while flanked with the youngsters. “They have the soccer video game and they burn the disk out they play it so much. When I was growing up, we played Madden. But these kids play Madden and also FIFA. I think that shows you that there’s been sort of a change in times.”
Looking at TV ratings show that Billiot’s logic is probably right. Once a nation that only watched American football at high volume numbers, the 2014 FIFA World Cup has scored absolutely huge numbers so far in the tournament.
The USA’s pool play match with Portugal was the highest-rated match in the history of our country, generating 18.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
At one point late in the match with the Americans looking like they were going to score a victory, viewership peaked at 23 million people.
Those numbers represented a 9.6 cable rating (the percentage of TVs tuned into the telecast). That rating was close to Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs a few weeks ago. It was higher than the rating for all six World Series games last fall.
Those ratings numbers are a bit skewed in soccer’s favor, as the World Cup’s morning and early-afternoon timeslots don’t compete against elite, primetime television programs like the NBA Finals and World Series times do.
But the numbers still a huge change from the days that American networks didn’t air the sport because it simply wasn’t being watched.
Yepez, who scored 33 goals with 19 assists in 83 games at LSU, said her theory about the sport’s ascent is its accessibility.
In addition to the success of Team USA, television deals have put the English Premier League on American networks, which allows fans free and easy access to the best players and teams in the world on a weekly basis during regular season play.
Couple that upswing with a deeper talent pool in the MLS, and it’s a win-win for all.
“It’s not difficult to watch anymore,” Yepez said. “Ten, 15, 20 years ago, you almost had to have some sort of special deal to see any of the matches. They just weren’t on TV. But now they are. Kids emulate what they see on TV – for better or for worse. So with more soccer on, children are seeing guys like Cristiano Ronaldo and are getting sucked into how amazing of an athlete he truly is. Once they see that, they’ll ask their mom or dad to buy a ball and some cleats. Once they have a ball and cleats, they’ll try and kick it around to be like Ronaldo when they’re with their friends.”
LOCAL YOUTH PROGRAMS SEE INCREASES IN NUMBERS
Yepez gave the image of a young child kicking a soccer ball around with his/her friends as an example to illustrate her point.
The truth is that there are actually millions of children learning the sport in the earliest stages of life.
According to usyouthsoccer.org, there were 3 million children enrolled in youth soccer in 2012 across America – a number that has held relatively steady for the past decade.
But when one looks at history, it’s easy to see exactly how far we’ve come as a country. In 1974, the site’s statistics show that 103,432 children played youth soccer. In 1990, the tally was 1.6 million.
So by that math, we may accurately state that the number of children who play youth soccer has almost doubled in the past 24 years. This phenomenon naturally produces more fans for the sport, as the children graduate from youth age and become adults who are interested in the sport. But it has also been the driving force behind our country’s quest toward competitiveness on the global level of competition.
Kelso knows this to be true better than anyone. During his time with Vandebilt, he coached against several of the best high school players in America – guys who have graduated past the prep level and have ascended to the collegiate ranks.
Because of Title IX, most programs in the South have just women’s soccer, LSU and Nicholls included.
But Kelso believes that if LSU would ever get a men’s team, it would be a success.
“The talent is here,” he said. “We have some of the elite players in the country right here in our backyard. A couple of players in our state have recently won big-time national high school awards for their elite play. It’s a shame that they have to travel so far to continue their careers because of the lack of opportunities here close to home, but the talent is undeniably here.”
The best part of it all is that a lot of the talent Kelso mentioned is right here in Houma. Vandebilt Catholic’s soccer teams annually compete for state championships with both the boys’ and girls’ teams owning multiple titles over the past few decades.
Of course, that means the team’s talent is home grown, most coming from the Houma-Terrebonne Soccer Association – an organization that has continued to see an increase in popularity in recent years.
Kelso said the success of the group is because of its dedicated officials, including President Cecil Zeringue and the others on the association’s Board of Directors.
Those individuals love the sport and have for years.
It’s their job to make sure that this fever stays in the blood of local children for a long, long time.
If Team USA keeps this up, that should be an easy task.
It surely doesn’t seem like soccer is going anywhere anytime in the near future.
“It’s bigger today than it’s ever been,” Kelso said. “Will it ever become as big as football here? Probably not. But it’s growing. There’s no two ways around that. It’s definitely growing.”
United States soccer fans sport red, white and blue from head-to-toe to show their support for the men’s national team during their World Cup match with Germany last Thursday. At press-time, the Americans were still in the field. Regardless of how far the United States advances, World Cup fever has swept through our nation, which is progressing forward in its love for soccer.