In 2011, soccer continued to surge, now as the third major sport in the United States. There were milestones and drama in MLS and WPS and in the men’s and women’s U.S. National Teams and new heights in broadcasting, marketing and business deals.
From top to tenth, here are the 10 biggest soccer stories of 2011 in the USA.
1. Soccer attendance overtakes NBA as No. 3 sport in USA
In 2011, MLS attendance hit an all-time high, pushing the sport into the No. 3 spot over No. 4 NBA (17,319) and No. 5 NHL (17,126). Average MLS attendance climbed to 17,870 in 2011, up from 16,675 in 2010. While television viewings for soccer and basketball differ at this point, ratings for soccer programming continue to climb, sparking network battles for broadcast rights of various soccer properties. NBC won a three-year deal worth $10 million annually to broadcast MLS, replacing Fox Soccer Channel.
The increase in the popularity of MLS can be attributed to higher quality play and players and new soccer specific stadiums with improved atmosphere, enhanced by supporters groups. For the third year in a row, Seattle Sounders led in regular season attendance – up from 30,897 in 2009, to 36,173 in 2010, to 38,496 in 2011. The LA Galaxy hold the No. 2 spot, expansion Vancouver Whitecaps claim third place and Toronto are fourth.
2. Portland Timbers and Alaska Airlines mainstream soccer culture
The Portland Timbers and their sponsor Alaska Airlines found a way to mainstream soccer culture by merging sponsor and product in a humorous TV advertisement featuring Portland head coach John Spencer as a rakish air attendant on Alaska Airlines.
Alaska Airlines also painted a jet with the Timbers’ bright yellow and green colors and the team’s logo and advertised early boarding privileges to passengers wearing Portland jerseys during the MLS season. These two innovative mainstream marketing projects represent a real landmark for MLS.
3. Japan win 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, defeat USA
Devastated by the March tsunami, earthquakes and nuclear disaster, Japan overcame unimaginable adversity to win 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup by defeating the USA 2-2 on penalties in overtime in Frankfurt, Germany. [photos] It was the first time the USA ever finished second, having won the tournament in 1991 and 1999 and placed third in 1995, 2003 and 2007.
The USA-Japan final more than doubled ESPN’s record as the most-watched and highest-rated soccer telecast as the final was seen by close to 14 million viewers.
Homare Sawa, a 16-year veteran of the Japan National Team playing in her fifth World Cup, won the Golden Boot for scoring five goals. Brazil’s Marta won the silver and USA’s Abby Wambach won the bronze, with four goals apiece. Sawa, 32, also won the Golden Ball as the 2011 tournament’s MVP, and Wambach won the silver and U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo took home the bronze. Solo won the Golden Gloves award for best goalkeeper.
The 21-player World Cup All-Star Team featured 10 players from six nations who have played in the WPS. Overall, 36 WPS players from eight nations competed in FIFA World Cup 2011.
4. Jurgen Klinsmann named coach of U.S. Men’s National Team
July 29, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati named Jürgen Klinsmann head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Former coach Bob Bradley was released the day before after a disappointing 2010 World Cup and subsequent mediocre performances. Since taking over, Klinsmann has compiled an unconvincing 2-4-1 record.
In 1988, Klinsmann was the top-scorer in the Bundesliga and Player of the Year in Germany. With a record 15 goals in 12 matches, he helped Bayern Munich win the UEFA Cup in 1996 and the Bundesliga title for the 1996-1997 season. Klinsmann scored 47 goals in 108 appearances for Germany and helped the team win 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy and the 1996 European Championship. As a coach, Klinsmann guided Germany to a 20-8-6 record and third place in 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup and third place in 2006 FIFA World Cup, earning him Coach of the Year honors in Germany. After resigning from the National Team after World Cup 2006, in 2008 Klinsmann briefly became head coach at Bayern Munich.
5. Blazer steps down as CONCACAF General Secretary after 21 years
October 6, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) announced that after a scandal-packed summer, on December 31, General Secretary and U.S. representative Chuck Blazer, 66, would step down from his position of 21 years to pursue other career opportunities in international football.
This summer, scandals revealed by Blazer divided the Confederation and resulted in the removal and bans of long-time CONCACAF president Jack Warner, his successor Lisle Austin and former Qatari FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam after Blazer blew the whistle on a bribery incident. In that incident, Caribbean officials were each given $40,000, totalling $1 million, to vote for Bin Hammam in his failed bid for FIFA president, which was won by unchallenged incumbent Sepp Blatter.
Subsequent to Warner’s initial suspension, acting CONCACAF presidential successor Austin promptly attempted to fire Blazer, but was removed himself. Accusations within the lucrative confederation were lobbed fast and furious and sometimes with wealthy Blazer as the target. BBC Panorama reporter Andrew Jennings claims that Blazer “over the last five years has paid himself $9.6 million in bonuses on top of his pay as general secretary of Concacaf” and filters the money in offshore accounts through his own Cayman Islands-based company Sportvertising.
In early June, in response to the torrent of allegations of bribery and corruption, FIFA hired Freeh Group International Europe, the investigation agency of Louis Freeh, director of the FBI from 1993 to 2001, to look into the bribery situation, which may have affected the USA’s failed World Cup bid.
Blazer will retain his seat on the Executive Committee of FIFA, which he has held since 1997. In that role, he lobbied to bring FIFA’s marketing and television rights in-house and was instrumental in securing the organization’s $425 million deal with Univision and ESPN for rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
6. Beckham and LA Galaxy win MLS Cup
The LA Galaxy captured the Philip F. Anschutz MLS Cup for the third time in their history and for the first time since bringing on the original designated player, David Beckham, for $250 million dollars. The Galaxy defeated Houston Dynamo 1-0 on a freakishly rainy night at their home field at The Home Depot Center for a record crowd of 30,281. The trio of Beckham, Robbie Keene and Landon Donovan combined on the winning goal, which punctuated the benefit of international stars in MLS.
7. WPS survives by skin of its teeth for 2012
In December, the U.S. Soccer Federation conditionally approved five-team WPS as a Division 1 league for 2012. But if WPS intends to retain this status, the League must expand to six teams in 2013 and eight teams by 2014, adjust their financial requirements to ensure continued operation through 2012 and overhaul their operating policies.
WPS had rough sledding in 2011 with renegade magicJack team owner Dan Borislow violating League policies and spewing personal criticism of League officials. After several reprimands and fines for Borislow, on October 27, WPS voted to terminate the Boca Raton franchise. Borislow responded with a lawsuit against WPS, which is pending.
In 2011, WPS was challenged by long spring and summer absences of international players preparing for and competing in World Cup and will face similar challenges in spring and summer 2012 with the London Olympics. While those absences create opportunities for young players to get time, there will be little star power to attract fans to games.
8. MLS referees impact the game in big way
Early in the season, three MLS stars – Javier Morales, David Ferriera and Steve Zakuani had their legs broken [photos] within two weeks because of illegal tackles consistently allowed by MLS referees. In these cases, the tackles hit their marks (technical players) and took these playmakers out of the game for most or all of the season and devastated their teams. Halfway into the season, referees started handing out early cards for similar offenses and the horror tackles subsided, but there was a big cost to this late learning curve.
9. US Soccer provisionally sanctions NASL as D2
February 12, following a year of negotiations, the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors provisionally sanctioned the eight-team North American Soccer League (NASL) as the Division 2 league, but didn’t allow the teams to compete in the 2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In November, USSF provisionally sanctioned NASL for 2012 and allowed them to compete in Open Cup, where the teams are sure to make an impact.
The NSC Minnesota Stars, a League-owned team, won the 2011 NASL Championship, defeating Fort Lauderdale Strikers 3-1 on aggregate. Traffic Sports owns the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 100% and hold the majority stake in the Atlanta Silverbacks and Carolina Railhawks.
10. NCAA attempts to eliminate spring competition in Division 1 soccer
The fragility of college soccer as a route to the pros was revealed this November when the NCAA attempted to eliminate spring competition in Division 1 soccer for the third straight year. After strong opposition, the recommendation was snuffed, but it drew closer to reality than most of the soccer community realized. Had the proposal gone forward, the nation’s top college players would be reduced to a brief fall season and non-scholarship players, who primarily feature in spring, might never play a real game. International training features year-round competition and with the elimination of spring competition, NCAA players would be further handicapped in their professional aspirations.
MLS academies do not replace college soccer. In fact, over 90% of Academy players desire to and do play college soccer to live the college experience and prepare for a lifetime career. In England, many academies now require players to take academic coursework to prepare the many who don’t make the pros or have very short careers and have nothing to fall back on.
The NCAA recommendation could resurface next year as universities look to cut costs and improve academic performance of athletes. This year, the NCAA is moving forward on a proposal to eliminate international tours, although the majority of these (with the notable exception of basketball) are privately funded. The problem is, administrators are reluctant to cut revenue sports like football and basketball, which have the weakest academic performance, and to satisfy mandates will likely cut away at sports with the least organizational support.
The USA needs two routes to the pros – MLS Academies and college – and that need is not going to change any time soon. MLS Academies only touch a tiny fraction of the youth players in the United States, whereas players from any town or state can advance to the college game. As the NFL and NBA have influenced the NCAA to strengthen their programs, MLS would do well to increase their support of the college game and strengthen ties with that organization.
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