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Cup run is over, but room to grow for U.S. soccer fandom

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By Steve Smith

BRIGHTON — One of the questions before the U.S. Soccer Federation is how to keep this year’s interest in the World Cup before American eyes during the next four years.

The United States advanced to the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup and lost for the second straight World Cup in extra time.

Brighton High School boys soccer coach Kevin Barnes said advancing out of the so-called “Group of Death” to get to the round of 16 is a sign that U.S. soccer fortunes are turning around.

“Making it to the knockout round has altered the U.S. soccer landscape,” Barnes said. “You will see a huge change in how teams in the U.S. play that will translate to even the youth and amateur levels of soccer. We will see world-class soccer on a more regular level.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Barnes said more university soccer programs started, especially women’s programs.

“That led to a huge influx of younger players,” Barnes said. “The growth has been gradual but rising ever since. But so have many other sports, including golf, hockey, volleyball, softball and lacrosse in addition to football, baseball and basketball. That means lots of choices for the younger generation, so competition for resources and bodies is fierce.”

That’s not the case in other countries.

“It’s easy to see why the focus without alternate opportunities is predominantly on soccer,” Barnes said. “I don’t see too many other countries embracing American football at anything more than a curiosity level.”

Barnes also noted that soccer takes a long time to develop technical skills to play well.

“And technical ability is immediately tied to the success in the game,” he said. “Also, technical skills are not easily developed. The best players start early. That is true of many sports, but especially so in soccer. Many young athletes look for instant gratification and success. Coaches and parents who think their players are the next Pele at 9 years old and who drive the player mercilessly to that end are often disappointed when the player burns out at 12 and quits playing. The kids have to enjoy the experience for the sport to grow.”

What may help is the women’s World Cup, which is in Canada next year. But that may not replace what Barnes saw during a trip to California the same day Mexico played a match against Brazil.

“The company had a lottery for workers to be absent on that day to watch the match in an attempt to prevent a mass exodus,” he said. “Out of a 20-man crew, the three employees who won were able to take off. But seven others called in sick anyway.”

Barnes said the relative success of the U.S. team would help in the long run.

“I heard the other day that some 28 billion people worldwide will watch Cup matches,” he said. “This provides the best in the world to showcase their talents for their country on a world stage. The interest in feverish.”

Contact Sports Editor Steve Smith at ssmith@metrowestnewspapers.com.