SANDY – The National Football (not futbol) League is considering putting a team in London. Major League Baseball is opening its 2014 season in Australia. The NBA was playing regular-season games in foreign places nearly a quarter-century ago.
America is spreading its sports to the corners of the globe.
Meanwhile, the globe is spreading its game to America.
Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium, the U.S. men’s national team opened the second half of FIFA World Cup Qualifying with a 1-0 win over Honduras. With 13 points, the Americans have virtually guaranteed themselves a World Cup berth in 2014.
This remains bigger news in Bogota and Madrid than in Chicago and New York. But you couldn’t tell that to the sold-out Rio Tinto audience. There wasn’t an available chair in the zip code. After selling all 20,000 tickets in two days after the match was announced, organizers produced 200 more tickets, starting at $45. Those too were gobbled up.
Last week in Seattle, 40,000 fans attended a 2-0 American win over Panama. It didn’t just produce a result, it produced a liftoff. The U.S. has now won four straight matches.
You’ve heard this before and you will again: Soccer has, well, a toehold in America, maybe even a foothold. After all, this is the sport’s centennial year in the USA.
Tuesday’s sellout — and expansion aspirations by American leagues — brought up a recurring question: Why not just add an American team to a top foreign league, such as the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga?
If America could add an NFL team in London, why not have an EPL team in New York?
Could other countries bring soccer’s big leagues over here?
“Like who? Like Europe?” said Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who was on the USA roster. “No, that’s not how it works. Each country has its own league and that’s the way it is.”
But not necessarily the way it will be, at least if you ask American goalkeeper Tim Howard, whose day job is starring for EPL’s Everton.
“They talk about it,” he said. “I can see it, you know? Every time a European team comes over here, whether it’s in summer or the postseason, they get really good crowds. So I think it’s a possibility. It’s hard, but when it comes to marketing and money, anything’s possible, I suppose.”
All it would take is a league willing to make even more money, plus a lot of logistical compromises.
As it stands, Beckerman is right. There are other avenues for American players to meet the world’s best. For instance, the FIFA World Cup, which Tuesday’s match brought into focus.
“There are tournaments where, if you do well, it will get you out there,” Beckerman said, citing CONCACAF competition, in which Real Salt Lake is involved. “You can win that, but to play with European leagues — it won’t be like that. No.”
In any case, what happened at Rio Tinto was surely an international event. Tickets were sold to fans from 45 states. Howard called last week’s game in Seattle “a real home field advantage for us.”
Howard said, “The last 20-25 years we’ve not always had that, so now the playing fields are becoming level.”
Actually, it looked fairly downhill for the U.S., at least for the second half on Tuesday. Both teams had players missing for a variety of reasons, the most colorful involving Jerry Bengston, who had previously left Honduras following a dispute with the coach.
Though dressed for celebration — where else do guys wear star-spangled suspender pants and painted torsos? — the home crowd was surprisingly subdued in the first half. In terms of scoring, so were the players.
There were a couple of early choruses of “USA!” but little else.
But eventually things improved for the USMNT. It failed on a header in the 56th minute. A goal was disallowed on an offside call. Two more header attempts at the goal were denied. Clint Dempsey missed in the 68th minute from outside the box. Makeable shots were missed, others blocked.
By then the audience had begun to stir.
Jozy Altidore — who has scored a goal in each of the last four matches — finally won it in the 73rd minute on a left-footed kick from the center of the box. Yes, it’s starting to look like Altidore vs. the World.
“You could smell it — it’s coming,” USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Streamers. Music. Drums. Craziness.
The crowd could finally celebrate like contestants on a game show.
Which isn’t far from how it would be if an overseas soccer league were to take American soccer to its heart.
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