World Cup fever, catch it ... uh, kick it!
June 24, 2002
Robert Spuhler
Staff Writer

Pundits and soccer backers from as long ago as the 1960s have sounded like Boston Red Sox fans: Wait until next year.

Wait for my kids to grow up. Wait for this generation to get control of media outlets. Wait for this generation to have their own kids. When that happens, soccer will take its rightful place as a major sport in America.

Until now, it hadnít happened. Ratings for Major League Soccer on television are lower than those of half-hour commercials for spray-on hair. Press coverage lags far behind the major four sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey), golf, and even auto racing. Sports talk radio would rather talk about the jersey number of the Washington Redskins quarterback than Jaime Moreno. Hell, most sports talk radio hosts canít spell "Jaime Moreno."

So for long-suffering fans of the sport, the news from Nielson families is more than encouraging.

According to the Associated Press, the 2002 World Cup is shattering time slot ratings records on ESPN Ė not difficult, granted, considering that its competition is incessant reruns of "SportsCenter" and "Worldís Strongest Man" competitions. But having roughly 1.5 million people watching the United States get pounded by Poland at 7:30 a.m. rather than listening to Katie Couric is certainly a step in the right direction.

But itís not the first one. Because itís looking as if the young soccer players and their proponents from the 1960s may be right after all. Donít look now, but this sport is catching fire.

Thousands of D.C.-area sports fans are crowding into all-night bars and diners to watch the Cup. Bars in Montgomery County and elsewhere are crowded for match replays (especially with the games airing live in the middle of the night). Major media sources have gone from bashing the sport with mean-spirited diatribes to devoting serious resources to cover the national team in Korea.

But the World Cup is not the end-all, be-all of soccer. In Montgomery County alone, there are hundreds of youth teams, including two 2001 national championship squads. It has adult recreation leagues, itís home to the Maryland Pride of the W-League (womenís semipro soccer) and, if all that fails, itís a short subway ride to RFK Stadium, home of three-time Major League Soccer champion D.C. United and the Washington Freedom of the Womenís United Soccer Association.

It is also home to a top-rate soccer facility in the Maryland Soccerplex in Germantown. Last Wednesday, hundreds of fans showed up at 4 p.m. despite muggy and eventually stormy conditions to watch a scrimmage between D.C. United (or, mostly, their reserves) and Swiss champion FC Basel, not even the most well-known team from a country better regarded for its chocolate.

Janine Kraft is one of those soccer-loving children that has grown up into a fanatic. Carrying her 13-month-old child Helen in her arms (a future member of the Freedom, she joked), Kraft has waited since she started playing at the age of 9 for her sport of choice to gain in popularity.

"Itís finally come around," she said. "Thereís more professional teams now and people can saturate themselves in it."

The sport also has a strange way of converting those exposed to it. Mark Whitney of North Potomac hasnít always been a soccer fan. In fact, he really only started following the sport when his daughter Amanda, soon to turn 10, started playing.

Now, heís a fanatic. Heís watched about 10 different World Cup games live and nearly all of the rest on tape.

"I think people are getting used to watching soccer," he said.

Thatís always been the problem in the United States. Soccer participation levels are always through the roof, and more youth under the age of 18 play soccer than almost any other sport.

"Itís a lot of fun just to play and watch," Amanda said. "In the World Cup, you get to see a lot of spectacular goals."

But getting a public whoíd rather be force-fed the notion of "world" championships in baseball and basketball to pay attention to a sport that the U.S. not only doesnít dominate in, but isnít even in the top 10, can be tough.

"Weíre not as dominating in soccer as in other sports," Whitney said. "It gets downplayed a lot."

The tide may be changing there too.

The United States is in the World Cup. And weíre not just talking "in," like in 1990 and 1998 when the team went a combined 0-6. Weíre talking "in" as is in the quarterfinals, one of the final eight teams in the world.

Can this momentum, this feel-good feeling toward a sport often the target of derision from sportswriters and broadcasters, last?

"The success of the national team is pivotal," D.C. United head coach Ray Hudson said after the Basel scrimmage. "Itís one hand washing the other Ė it propels the interest in the sport."

Hudson himself was bleary-eyed by the end of the scrimmage last Wednesday. When not coaching D.C. or traveling overseas to scout new players, heís been joining ESPN analysts Rob Stone and Dave Dir for the networkís "World Cup 2Night" program.

"I have people coming up to me on the street just because Iím wearing a United shirt," he said. "Theyíre picking up on the buzz."

For some of us, that buzz has been a constant part of our lives. For some, it started with "Soccer Made In Germany," a weekly soccer show carried on PBS decades ago. For those of us a bit younger, it was seeing Earnie Stewart on the cover of Sports Illustrated and watching the U.S. valiantly struggle in the 1994 World Cup second round against Brazil.

And now, for the kids of today, that buzz manifests itself in Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. Itís spectacular diving saves from Brad Friedel. Itís the precision of John OíBrien, the athleticism of Eddie Pope and the clinical finishing of Clint Mathis.

Welcome to World Cup fever. This is what the soccer fans have talked about since the 1960s. Finally, they may be right.