As the Clint Dempsey signing saga unfolded last weekend, I kept thinking about what this means for American soccer in the long term. I was reminded of an MLS Works commercial that aired last year. It showed a bunch of kids playing soccer and pretending that they were various MLS stars such as Thierry Henry, Brek Shea and Fredy Montero. At the end of the spot, one of the players says that he will take the corner kick like Landon Donovan. He doesn't realize that Donovan is standing right behind him. I doubt the choice of Donovan and Shea was arbitrary. They were two of the more important USMNT players playing in MLS at the start of the 2012 season.
Young athletes have idols that help fuel their dreams. These dreams sustain the drive necessary to become successful professionals. Clint Dempsey's potential as an idol for young players plays a pivotal role in MLS reaching its stated goal of becoming a world class league within the next 10 years or so. The young athletes playing youth soccer today will need to form the core of the league even then. Bringing USMNT players back into the fold while keeping young rising stars like Omar Gonzales and Graham Zusi in the league provides the next generation of American players accessible role models.
In order for MLS to reach its goal, they need to shift the prevailing attitudes toward soccer throughout America. They must slowly continue to build the demand for youth soccer in both urban and rural markets. Historically soccer has strong footholds in some communities across the country, but until its scope reaches the proliferation of youth baseball, basketball and football, it will always be a foreign sport. And though we within the Sounder at Heart community know the virtues of this sport we love; we have all heard the snide remarks that soccer isn't a real sport among the mainstream American sports fan base.
Years ago Jurgen Klinsmann talked about how soccer is a suburban sport in our country. Our youth leagues are mostly found in more affluent neighborhoods. In the rest of the world, soccer is played by all strata of society. Children play with soccer balls on any convenient patch of dirt. It provides a ticket out of abject poverty in much the same way that basketball, football and baseball do here. Half of the solution of creating a world class soccer league is to create the demand and interest in the sport. The second half of the solution is to have the economic infrastructure to support the league. America is unusual because it is one of the few markets where the economic infrastructure to support a world class league exists, but it lacks the market demand.
And in other countries their home grown heroes become legendary. I remember the place that Jorge Campos held in the collective consciousness of Mexico. But it was a position of importance that was due in no small part to his accessibility. Kids could see him play on television. How many American households have had regular access to watching Clint Dempsey play for the last seven years? It matters. For all of the difficulties the MLS has moving the needle in the overall TV ratings, they are still more accessible (though less watched) to a wider swath of the American audience than the English Premiere League. And if a player like Dempsey can help shift that needle even a little, it becomes the start of a geometric progression. More kids get hooked. More lucrative television contracts in turn lead to a higher salary cap and ultimately more American athletes choose soccer. America has the population base to become a soccer power. But a larger percentage of that base needs to play soccer in order for that to happen.
One of the most prevalent discussions in the wake of Dempsey's return to the US has been how it will play out for his role with the USMNT. Yet all of this discussion has been focused on the short term impact of whether it was good for him and his immediate career and the pending US World Cup run. This limited discussion needs to be broadened to include a dialogue of how bringing the American stars home in the prime of their careers will influence the trajectory of the game in this country over the next decade. MLS isn't blind to the importance of that influence. Retention funds and the huge money they just spent on Clint Dempsey show that they understand it very well.