The Next Step For U.S. Soccer

When U.S. Men’s National Soccer team manager Jürgen Klinsmann said he wanted to make an impact on the game in the States, I am not sure he meant to set off a PR tirade. The impact I am talking about was the surprising move of leaving Landon Donovan, arguably the most accomplished soccer player ever in United States history, off  the final 2014 World Cup roster. The move was met with an explosion of controversy, more than anyone had seen in the history of the sport in the U.S. Twitter especially became a firestorm of reaction, with fans and even former teammates of Landon’s chiming in with their opinion on the matter.

Traditionally, debates about roster decisions in the U.S. are reserved for sports like football or basketball. It is unique and admittedly refreshing to hear fans debating a World Cup roster as if it’s the Chicago Bears starting quarterback for a game on Sunday.

What Donovan has done for soccer in America is nothing short of incredible, but in reality, this was the right move for Klinsmann to make. One only need look at some of the facts. Landon is getting older, and his conditioning isn’t top form. And playing in the humidity of Manaus, Brazil, with the U.S. facing its toughest challenge in this year’s Group of Death, it is doubtful that he could be a top contributor for 90 minutes. 

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I’d like to reserve the rest of this piece as an opportunity to look forward to the real impact of Klinsmann’s actions. What does a Landon Donovan-less U.S. World Cup team look like? Something we haven’t seen since 1998. Klinsmann is playing all of his chips, giving selected young players an opportunity to show the world -- perhaps, most importantly the brands  -- what they can contribute.

Sponsoring brands are betting big on the World Cup this year, and that means a successful U.S. run could mean doors opening for the emerging stars of the American squad. Make no mistake, there are serious expectations for this team after 2010. That World Cup run saw TV ratings jump 41%, as the Americans won their group for the first time in history. The success didn’t end when the Americans were knocked out of the tournament. The final between Spain and the Netherlands became the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history with over 15 million viewers ,according to a recent Sports Illustrated report. This World Cup, particularly with another successful run by the U.S., holds the potential for even more viewers and more exposure for brands and players alike.

Players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, both of whom came back from top European Leagues to play for MLS, are the bright stars of this squad. While both are certainly stars in the soccer world, Brazil could act as a launching pad for them with a global audience. Some brands are already betting on them, like Seattle-based beef jerky brand Oberto, which signed Dempsey to a deal shortly after he came back to the States to play for the Seattle Sounders.

The bright spots only begin with Dempsey and Bradley, and we would be remiss to not mention the young, fresh faces Klinsmann has added to the roster -- players like Aron Johansson and Julian Green, both dual citizens of European descent that bring a wealth of potential and talent to Brazil and to World Cup teams in the future.  

No matter how the Americans fare in Brazil, this summer represents all of the positive momentum behind soccer’s growing popularity in America. The momentum doesn’t stop with the World Cup, America’s Major League Soccer is also moving in a similar direction. With 10 MLS players on the World Cup team, and a new broadcast rights deal with ESPN and Fox Sports 1, the league is poised to have one of the most successful seasons in its history. That’s before we even mention the new teams and new players coming to the league, such as Spain’s David Villa headed to the recently formed New York City FC team.

Soccer will only continue to grow in the states, but the U.S. team making it out of a group featuring Germany, Portugal and Ghana could be an historic occasion. A World Cup run like that would make a lasting impact on the beautiful game’s place in this country, a little more along the lines of what Klinsmann has in mind.

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