Soccer fans have been anxiously waiting — and waiting — for their sport to catch on in America. While futbol is the world's most popular game elsewhere, it still hasn't attracted U.S. viewers in the masses as well as footie purists would like.
Despite its lagging interest, the game has made strides in America, according to Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
"They [Americans] have advanced the game because of their coaching, their sports science, and their preparations are first class," Ferguson said. "We noticed that when we played the teams last year."
Ferguson and his Red Devils came to the U.S. last summer to face MLS clubs in friendly matches as a preseason tune-up. They do so again this summer, beginning with Wednesday night's Herbalife World Football Challenge against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium.
United officials never could have planned it this way, but the team's U.S. tour comes at the most opportune time for soccer to take off in the states. Mired in a cloud of negative sports news, Americans could use an intervention in the form of the "beautiful game." Consider the landscape of American sports.
NFL, NCAA Football
The other football, America's most popular sport right now, is mired in controversy at both the professional and collegiate ranks. The NFL labor dispute still lingers on, and there is a very real possibility that games (and a lot of revenue) will be lost because of it. Scandals have rocked the college game, from Jim Tressel's misdeeds at Ohio State to the suspicious activities of Chip Kelly at Oregon. Oh yeah, and there's still that whole BCS thing to debate (I'll spare you for now).
Baseball is still trying to shake off the steroid era label, but that won't get any easier with Roger Clemens' perjury case set to begin this week.
NBA, NCAA Basketball
Basketball is in a major state of peril as the NBA lockout seems direr than the NFL's, and many high-profile players are seriously considering playing overseas. In college hoops, the gambling scandal at San Diego and the illegal recruiting practices of Bruce Pearl at Tennessee have hurt the credibility and competitive balance of the game.
Hockey, the one sport not surrounded by doom and gloom (particularly in Boston), is still working to regain national popularity but hasn't found a lucrative TV partner (read: ESPN) to reach the masses and the collective sports conscience of many Americans.
Golf is trying to find its next superstar to market the sport after, but somehow Rory McIlroy doesn't have the same appeal as Tiger Woods.
With so many distractions deterring fans, soccer has a prime opportunity to step into the void of the sports lexicon, and evidence of that is already being seen. The U.S. women's national team pulled off a remarkable comeback against Brazil on Sunday, setting the social media world ablaze. ESPN thought highly enough of Abby Wambach's heroics that it ranked it as the fifth-most dramatic sports moment of all time. While that may be a tad overzealous it nevertheless captivated viewers, much like Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in last summer's World Cup. That interest should grow if the U.S. women take home the World Cup title on Sunday.
So how popular could soccer become in America? Ferguson believes the country could someday support multiple leagues.
"We see the United States in a different light because there is evidence they are starting to produce their own players," Ferguson said. "I always thought the problem would be the size of the country. … But in Brazil they have two leagues. They could easily do that in the United States if it takes off, if they got more clubs involved, and with more soccer teams they could split the leagues. There are unbelievable possibilities for the United States."
Manchester United has a unique opportunity to help soccer grow in the United States. Consider these exhibition friendly matches not as contests but as clinics, with Wayne Rooney and Co. serving as instructors. These soccer superstars could aid in demonstrating to Americans about what the game has to offer, and teaching MLS players what it takes to be great on the pitch.
"It'll be a great experience for [the players] to play against one of the best teams on the planet and some of the best players on the planet," said Revs head coach Steve Nicol. "I'm sure it'll be a great experience for our guys."
For the "beautiful game," beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.