Gooaaalll!

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The FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament comes around every four years, and is in full swing once again this summer. During the last tournament in 2014, 3.2 billion people– nearly half the population of the Earth– tuned in to watch as it was televised in every single country in the world, including the Arctic and Antarctica. 

When you look at those numbers, it’s not all that surprising that soccer is the most popular sport in the world…except it isn’t in the United States. Granted, viewership nearly doubled here in the States from 2010 to 2014 – growing from 2.9 million to 4.3 million. However, those numbers are a drop in the bucket of the 3.2 billion that watched worldwide. 

Interestingly enough, it just so happens that the most attended soccer game in US history happened Sunday in Atlanta, with nearly 72,000 fans in the stands. That is pretty cool, but comparatively speaking, the World Cup stadiums are filled to capacity right now over in Russia.

Given that soccer is such a popular sport around the world, I got to wondering why America has been so slow to jump on board the original football train.

We can even look close to home to see a dichotomy of opinions regarding soccer. The largest club sport in Newcastle is the soccer program, which this year had 147 kids, ages four to 14, registered and playing.

What’s interesting to me is how can a program that is so popular with kids and parents all of a sudden fade to next to nothing once the players reach high school and beyond?

Newcastle High School did not even offer soccer as an option until 2005 and when it did finally do so, it was begrudgingly. For the first two seasons, the teams only competed at the junior varsity level, so Dogie varsity soccer didn’t hit the pitch until 2007. 

Statewide the sport was small as well, with 3A soccer as a WHSAA sanctioned sport kicking off in 2008. At that time, there was only one class and all teams automatically advanced to the state tournament, where the Lady Dogies have finished fifth once and in sixth place twice.

By 2011, the sport had grown sufficiently enough to be separated into classes, and for teams to have to qualify for the state tournament by seeding and/or play-in games.

Three years ago, the high school coaches succeeded in introducing a middle school program as a feeder for their junior varsity and varsity teams. It is a fledgling middle school sport across the state, and as such, has no district tournament at this time. However, the Calves do play other 3A and 4A schools during the season and have competed well. 

Over the years, the program has grown, and with that growth has become more and more successful. In fact, the Lady Dogies have advanced to the state tournament twice since the qualification change in 2011. The first time was in 2014, and then again in 2016 when they finished in fourth place. 

Over the past ten years of the Dogie program, about 10 athletes – ladies and men – have gone on to play some college soccer on scholarships. 

Despite the success of the Dogie teams and the growing popularity among NHS athletes, the stands at Schoonmaker Field are still all but empty on game day. Parents and a few die-hard fans show up, but the sprinkling of people cheering on our teams is nothing compared to what one will find on any given Friday night in the fall.

I’ll admit that I didn’t “like” soccer at first, but after my son played for a couple of years and after photographing many contests, I am pretty sure the only reason I didn’t like it was because I didn’t understand it. Perhaps as understanding of the game grows, so will its popularity.

The fan base for soccer is small all over the US, not just in Newcastle. However, for those who love the sport, it’s beginning to look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel as more and more Americans are beginning to embrace all that the game has to offer. 

I mean, 2.3 billion people can’t be wrong. After all…it’s an interesting and exciting sport to watch!

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