Duke University Alumni Magazine


Net results: A stellar 1999 season for ACC-champion Duke men's soccer, ranked number one going into the NCAA tournament at the end of November
Photo: Jeffrey A. Camarati

Will soccer, the world's favorite sport, finally score big in the United States?

quick trivia quiz: When and in what sport did Duke win its first NCAA national championship? If you ask members of the Duke community at random, you're likely to get a few stares. Men's basketball is the popular answer, of course, but that's not right. You'll get a few obscure guesses, like water polo or volleyball. "Tennis," respondents offer tentatively. "Golf?" "Field hockey?"

All wrong. In 1986, the Duke men's soccer team defeated Akron, 1-0, to claim the school's first national title in any sport. The world's most popular sport has been played well in Durham for some time. The men's team has compiled a record of 306-103-26 during the twenty-year tenure of head coach John Rennie, including this fall's undefeated regular season. Bill Hempen has led the women's program, founded in 1988, to seven NCAA tournament berths. Both teams boast excellent players with national reputations and the talent to compete with the country's best.

Despite its strong history as a collegiate sport at Duke and elsewhere, soccer in the United States is at a crossroads. On the heels of an astoundingly successful run to the 1999 Women's World Cup title by what must be the most popular female sports team ever, and with the recent emergence of Major League Soccer (MLS), yet another professional league for men, sports fans and cultural observers must wonder: Can soccer make it in the United States, a nation that has proven most resistant to its subtle charms?

It is often argued that soccer just won't take hold in the United States, with a host of wearying explanations offered as proof. It's too slow, perhaps. There's not enough obvious action or scoring for Americans, with their short attention spans. Or, most frustrating, "it's not our game"--as if nations should only contest games they invent. If soccer can finally refute those arguments and earn the permanent interest of the American sports fan, that success will be due in no small part to the talents and efforts of a number of Duke graduates and coaches. They work both in their game and for it, as missionaries to a sports culture that has shunned them, that has forced them to market and sell themselves and their game as much as participate in it.

The great sports story of 1999 may turn out to be the discovery of a heretofore unknown interest in watching American women kick a ball. Television ratings for the Women's World Cup final surpassed those of the NBA finals. Stadiums were packed with cacophonous, patriotic American fans who knew the game and the players. The image of a woman ripping off her shirt in triumph, as Brandi Chastain did upon scoring the deciding penalty-kick goal in the final game, promises to persist in the cultural subconscious for years. Mia Hamm is as omnipresent in advertising various wares as her Nike and Gatorade colleague Michael Jordan. In short, soccer was and is a hit in this country, at least for the moment. But why?

Something like this happened before, when the U.S. hosted the men's 1994 World Cup. John Koskinen '61, a long-time soccer fan, amateur coach, and soccer team owner who recently endowed a new tennis center and soccer field at Duke, headed the group that worked to bring the Cup to this country that year. (Koskinen, a former chair of Duke's board of trustees, now heads President Clinton's Y2K project--involving him in defensive strategies even more creative than those on the soccer field.) Those efforts paid off. Americans filled the arenas alongside a sizable number of foreign fans, shouting support, even for matches as obscure as Saudi Arabia vs. Belgium. It was intimated at the time that we were finally hooked on soccer, a vibrant, multicultural game for the multicultural 1990s.

But there is one obvious difference between the two tournaments. While the U.S. women won the 1999 World Cup, our 1994 men's team found itself out in the second round, which it had barely reached, when eventual Cup winner Brazil danced its way to a dishearteningly easy 1-0 win. This reinforced the impression that soccer was not for Americans, an impression made even more evident in the 1998 men's World Cup, when a talented American team nonetheless managed to lose all three of its matches.

The women, by contrast, are excellent. They like to attack, and there are plenty of compelling stories for marketing types to repackage: Michelle Akers' struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome; Brandi Chastain's flair for the revelatory gesture (long before her post-final gesture, she had posed for an ad clad only in cleats and soccer balls); and Carla Overbeck's dual life as a mother of two and team captain. Overbeck, who is an assistant women's coach at Duke when not playing with the national team, attributes this summer's success to a combination of factors, including Title IX, which mandated equal athletic opportunities for female college students.

"The reason that it was such a success was the marketing by the organizing committee," says Overbeck. "They were determined to fill those stadiums and they deserve most of the credit." Credit also goes to the players for spending countless hours selling the World Cup, and soccer in general, by signing autographs and doing interviews. Overbeck understands well the need for soccer players to sell their sport. "You're a player," she says, "but at the same time you're trying to promote your sport, by playing well, signing autographs, taking pictures. It's all about trying to get these kids excited about soccer so that they will play in the future."

It's also about trying to create a lasting fan base for soccer in the United States. Judging by television ratings and fan support during the Women's World Cup, that is beginning to materialize. Success is a powerful marketing force, and the U.S. women had a major advantage over the men, says Duke's John Rennie. "The U.S. role in women's soccer is very different from the U.S. role in men's soccer. We were kind of the founders of women's soccer. No one played it until the U.S. started to play it, so the U.S. had an advantage. We started in a different social environment: If a little girl wants to play a sport, there isn't as much of a social negative [here] as there is anywhere else in the world. The result is simply that the U.S. women's national team was successful on the world level almost immediately, which means you want to go watch it."

The most important question facing women's soccer in the United States now is whether all of this summer's interest can translate into a permanent professional league. There is no shortage of interest from the players, obviously, and several of the largest investors in Major League Soccer are said to be studying the feasibility of the idea. The most likely scenario is to begin play in six or eight cities sometime after the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, perhaps in the spring of 2001.

Overbeck, who has helped coach soccer at Duke since 1992, says a league is imperative if the U.S. is to maintain its world supremacy. "For so long, [the players] have had a hard time staying in top form," she says. "There is no environment after college to play competitively." And internationally, "We're competing with teams that have players playing year-round. We have a great need for a league."

Another Duke assistant, volunteer coach Samantha Baggett '98, is hopeful a women's league can be formed. Baggett, who is taking graduate courses in sports administration, says a professional league "is pretty realistic, especially after this summer. Whether or not it will be a success and continue for years is one thing. But now there will be a chance to give it a test run." Baggett spent five months training with the women's national team last spring before being cut from the World Cup team. That experience has left her hungry for more and, she says, she "would like to see if there's a future with the national team program, and I would be interested in participating in the pro league."

As a collegiate sport, women's soccer is firmly established--a point made dramatically this fall by the NCAA's surprise decision to expand the women's tournament to forty-eight teams while keeping the men's at just thirty-two. Indeed, after the 1999 World Cup, the women's game is seen by many as the path to success for soccer in this country.

On the men's side, where soccer has long struggled to impress Americans, a professional league is already in place. Major League Soccer followed the excitement generated by the 1994 World Cup matches played around the country. It started play in the spring of 1996 with ten teams and has since expanded to twelve, with further expansions tentatively planned for 2001 and 2003. The league has managed a number of notable successes: averaging more than 15,000 fans per game over its four seasons; nearly matching the National Hockey League in national television ratings; building a formidable and diverse pool of talented American players; and, perhaps most important, winning international respect and attention through the exploits of (Washington) D.C. United, which defeated two Mexican clubs and another from Brazil last year to be recognized as the best soccer team in the Western Hemisphere.

To be sure, soccer doesn't come close to matching the established sports--basketball, football, and baseball--in popularity. This is not because of some innate American aversion to what most of the rest of the world thinks of as "the beautiful game," but rather because Americans generally refuse to tolerate mediocrity or ineptitude in their teams. And notable among MLS's many problems is the record of the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, who were expected to be a pillar of strength for the league but have been just the opposite--horrendous on the field and nearly forgotten in the largest sports market in the country. Added to those growing pains in this fourth year of the league is terrible organizational turmoil, with both deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati and commissioner Doug Logan forced out by league investors. This combination of perceived incompetence with a certain amount of organizational chaos has led to a widespread perception that the league, estimated to have lost more than $60 million since its inception in 1996, might not last much longer.

Despite the problems, Rennie believes the league can survive: "It is established, it is stable, and will be able to operate. The league is capable of staying where it is for several more years. For the league to grow and get better, that's the question.

"The biggest problem is facilities, stadiums. Most are borrowed football stadiums or municipal stadiums, with too many seats. The biggest single need we have in the pro game is to do more of what happened in Columbus, where you have a stadium built for your sport. Football went through this--when the NFL came through, they were playing in baseball stadiums, in Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. That was a big problem for football establishing itself, and it didn't really become the NFL until that transition was made. If you go to Europe or anywhere soccer is the major sport, the stadiums are all built for soccer--well, it's just an incredible environment to be in. It makes a huge difference to everyone, the players and the fans."

What a kick: Jason Kreis '95 led Major League Soccer this season, scoring 51 points in 32 games
Photo: Rick Yeates

Champion coach: Carla Overbeck, assistant coach for Duke women's soccer, and Women's World Cup team captain
Photo: Bruce Feeley

One of the stars of Duke's 1986 national championship team was forward John Kerr '87, who later became the first American to play in England's top division and is now in his first year as head men's coach at Harvard. Kerr is equally optimistic about the prospects for MLS, in which he played for two seasons. "I think there are too many people in this country who want to see soccer played at a high level for MLS to slip through the cracks and die like the NASL," he says, referring to the American pro league of the 1970s and 1980s that boasted Pele and other world superstars. "I think it will survive no matter what.

"People don't realize it's only been three or four years, and it's come a long way since the first year when I played. Popularity-wise, it's made its mark in the American mainstream. It's not in the top four [sports], but it's in the newspapers. USA Today covers it. In Boston, where I live, it's in two major newspapers every single day. It's getting there in terms of public awareness. There is a long way to go, but the future's bright."

The best news for MLS and U.S. soccer is that the league has done wonders for the men's national team, whose excellent 1999 record boasts two victories against European champion Germany and another over two-time world champion Argentina. Most of the credit for the team's improved skill, greater depth, and increased mental and tactical savvy has gone to MLS, since the vast majority of national team players ply their trade in the new league. Among the crop of exciting young Americans developing in MLS who have recently played with the men's national team are Jason Kreis '95 and Jay Heaps '98. Evan Whitfield '98, Garth Lagerwey '95, Mark Dodd '88, and Brian Kelly '97 are also with MLS teams, which gives Duke the fifth-highest total of graduates in the league.

Kreis, a forward/midfielder for the Dallas Burn, was the leading scorer in MLS during the regular season this year, taking his team to the conference finals. An All-American in college, Kreis recently expressed his confidence in the latest attempt at pro soccer in America by signing a long-term contract extension with MLS instead of pursuing offers to play in Europe. But Kreis, a new father, admits to mixed feelings about the decision. "It's been a longtime dream [to play in Europe], to be enveloped in the lifestyle geared toward soccer above other sports. I was anxious to be surrounded by that. It was a very difficult decision, but I think I made the right decision for my family."

The Dallas star scored his first goal for the U.S. national team in a draw with Jamaica in September, where he was joined by Heaps, called up to the national team for the first time just six months after leaving Duke. Heaps may best be known to Blue Devil sports fans as a walk-on with the basketball team, but he is a considerable soccer talent, often mentioned as the favorite for MLS's Rookie of the Year award this season. The Miami defender says successful results from the national team and by individual MLS teams are crucial to building a fan base. "It seems [MLS] will be around," he says. "There have to be changes, obviously, but the owners seem committed. The fans are there, but it's a matter of getting a winning team into the right areas and it will catch on like wildfire."

Lagerwey, goalkeeper on Heaps' Miami Fusion team, has had a harder time finding success in the professional ranks. He is starting regularly this season for the first time in his career. Before gaining the starting position, he was accepted into law school at Georgetown. He is now considering whether to leave soccer next fall in search of less itinerant employment. The key for soccer's finding long-term success, he says, "is creating heroes for the kids and having them come to the games. We have to turn them into supporters of the game rather than [merely] participants. We're still in a situation where many parents don't understand soccer. They take their kids to it because it's a social environment. If you can seize the kids' imagination, then you've got something. I saw my first game, the Chicago Sting [a NASL team] at Wrigley Field when I was eight, and I fell in love with it. If you take kids who are good athletes and show them how good the sport can be, then that can really be inspirational."

From a demographic perspective, the prospects for MLS and soccer in general are positive. MLS says 50 percent of its adult fans are under thirty-four, and more than 60 percent of all fans are current or past participants in organized soccer. To survive, those in the soccer business must continue to transform the vast legions of soccer-playing children into soccer spectators. These new fans--and sizable, soccer-loving Latino populations in such cities as Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, and Miami, which the league says provide at least a third of MLS's fan base--provide hope.

This may be soccer's last best chance to colonize the United States. With one professional league in its infancy and another just being discussed, it's now or never. "It was always said that soccer is the sport of the next decade, the sport of the Eighties, the sport of the Nineties," says Rennie. "Until there's a pro league, it will never happen. Over a relatively short period of time--let's say after another five or ten years--soccer has a chance to graduate from being a participant sport to being a spectator sport, on TV, with financial incentives for players.

"If there were no NBA, there would be no Michael Jordan. He would have been a very good college player. Where would he have played? Would basketball be a prominent sport in the American scene? No. It would be a sport a lot of American kids loved to play and then, after college, there'd be no follow-up. A sport can't make it without a professional league."

And yet that league must be a showcase for its talent. When the game is played at a high level, as it was in both World Cups played in this country and as it is every time the U.S. women's team takes the field, that showcase is certain. Everyone from long-time fans to soccer neophytes, youth leaguers to media analysts, is swept up by the energy and excitement of soccer played well. Conversely, even the most ignorant viewer can tell that when two MLS teams get together, that excitement just isn't there. Yet.

But if more players have seasons like the league-leading one Jason Kreis just had for the Dallas Burn, for instance, more viewers will pay attention. And if MLS teams and the U.S. men's national team can take important matches as often as their World Cup-winning female counterparts, support will grow along with the winning record. Ultimately, that is why there is so much pressure on players like Kreis and Heaps--their failures and successes are likely to be those of their sport as well.

Ketner'96 is a freelance writer living in Durham.

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