American soccer fans will finally get their chance to gather around their televisions, iPads and just about anthing else wifi this evening as the U.S. men’s national team takes on Ghana in its World Cup opener.
However, the number of followers in the country remains significantly less within the United States than the rest of the world.
While the United States dominates global competition in basketball, football and baseball continue to rank among the nation’s most popular sport. However, soccer is the sport around the globe.
American soccer officials and experts have said for years that America was closing the gap on the rest of the world in terms of international competition, but there remains some work to do. The U.S. entered the World Cup 13th in the FIFA rankings, behind nations like Uruguay, Colombia, Belgium and Greece.
Local men’s soccer coaches Brendan Nash, of Bucknell, and Susquehanna’s Jim Findlay both said the gap is closing both in fans’ interest and competitiveness with other top countries.
“I think the gap is closing due to the amount of youth that are playing soccer,” said Findlay. “The strength of Major League Soccer has vaulted the U.S. into a better position on a global level.”
Nash watched a World Cup qualifier in Princeton a few years ago where only 3,000 people filled the stands. Now, he says, there are far more fans at events. More than 40,000 fans attended a U.S. World Cup qualifier last June in Seattle.
Nash noted that former Bucknell standout Conor O’Brien knows first-hand how much more attention soccer garners abroad. O’Brien is now playing soccer in Denmark rather than in the MLS and routinely plays in front of crowds that draw between 15,000 and 40,000.
One reason why America isn’t closing the competition gap as quickly, Nash said, is because the soccer has difficulty recruiting top athletes due to low salaries.
Top athletes are likely to choose to play a sport with larger salaries. According to Business Insider, only 12 players in MLS make more than $1 million. The league’s entire payroll is just $115.3 million while baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers, payroll is $235.3 million.
Last week Forbes issued a report of the top 100 highest paid athletes in the world. Twenty-seven names on the list are from Major League Baseball, 18 from the NBA, 17 from the NFL, and 15 are from European soccer teams. There are no U.S. men’s soccer players on the list.
The salaries of American soccer players are significantly less than their counterparts overseas. Forbes lists Portuguese player Cristiano Ronaldo as the highest paid soccer player in the world — and second overall — making $52 million in salary alone, while Argentinean star Lionel Messi is worth $42.7 million.
U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey, who played overseas in the past, is the highest paid player in the American-based MLS today, making $6.7 million in salary.