When the FIFA World Cup kicks off on June 12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the United States will be led by an East Texan. Clint Dempsey, captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) and making his third World Cup appearance, will be pursuing international glory with the final squad of 22 other Americans representing the nation on the world’s pitch.
Dempsey has garnered numerous other accolades (among them the distinction of being the first American to score a hat trick—three goals in one game—in the esteemed English Premier League), and his rise in the world soccer community is more than a reflection of his aggressive nature and hard-earned talent. The 31-year-old veteran midfielder from Nacogdoches, Texas, now in his tenth year as a professional player, embodies the possibility that the Lone Star State’s attitude toward “futbol” is changing.
Prior to landing a spot with the USMNT in 2004, Dempsey played college soccer at Furman University and, as a teen, with the Dallas Texans Youth Soccer Club. Founded in 1993, the Dallas Texans has grown into the premier soccer club for youths, having won more national championships than any other U.S. youth soccer club in history. Since 2003, the club has grown from 1,500 players in five North Texas divisions to more than 20,000 players in 13 divisions across nine cities.
The success and enormity of growth experienced by the Dallas Texans echoes the expansion of the sport among public high schools in Texas. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), 34,036 male students played soccer in Texas in 2013, a growth of approximately 26 percent since 2008—and this doesn’t even begin to address the phenomenal growth of women’s soccer in schools all over America. Youth soccer, especially among girls, has been on the rise steadily since Mia Hamm led the United States to a World Cup victory for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 1999 at the Rose Bowl.
By comparison, high school football participation in Texas since 2013 has increased by about 2 percent. Despite the vastly different growth rates, football still has a staggering lead over soccer when it comes to popularity in Texas. According to NFHS estimates, 165,359 male students play football in the Lone Star State, which is more than quadruple those 34,036 male students playing soccer.
Dempsey played soccer in Texas before its big boom of growth. “When I was a little kid, I would pray about one day being in a World Cup and getting the opportunity to score a goal,” Dempsey recently told MLSsoccer.com. “But here I (was) in Texas, and not very many people are as passionate about the sport as I am.” Dempsey would go on to score his first World Cup goal against Ghana in 2006. He described that moment to MLSsoccer.com as his favorite World Cup memory: “For me, it was accomplishing the biggest goal possible from when I was a kid.”
Children all over the world share Dempsey’s World Cup dream. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body that oversees association soccer) touts the tournament as the world’s most popular sporting event. It is estimated that more than 715 million people watched the final match of the 2006 FIFA World Cup held in Germany between France and the eventual victors, Italy. The 2010 World Cup final in South Africa (Netherlands vs. Spain) was broadcast to 204 countries whose citizens watched the Spanish team eke out a win in overtime, scoring the match’s only goal.
No other TV audience in the world saw more growth in World Cup viewing than in America, reflecting rising interest and—perhaps—shifting demographics. The U.S. Census Bureau has consistently reported on the rapidly growing population of Texas, noting the significant changes this growth is having (and will continue to have) on the ethnic composition of the state. Hispanics, now the majority-minority in Texas—the Texas Comptroller’s office predicts this demographic will grow to become the majority population in 2020—are traditionally more invested in soccer. According to a recent Huffington Post article, 26 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. choose soccer as their favorite sport to watch, and 56 percent said they are likely to watch World Cup play. Thus, the explosive growth of Texas’ Hispanic community may be fostering soccer’s increasing momentum. In addition, soccer is extremely popular among younger Americans; according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), 21.5 million kids ages 6 to 17 played team sports in 2013—that’s the equivalent of the entire population of Texas in 2000—and almost one third of U.S. households report at least one soccer player. That number translates to some 6.61 million soccer players between the ages of 6 and 17 across the country in 2012, second only to those playing team basketball.
But population shifts alone do not explain soccer’s rise. While participation in soccer has increased by about 7 percent across the country, NFHS reports that participation in football has actually decreased by approximately 2 percent. This nationwide decline suggests that additional factors are contributing to the rising popularity of soccer and other sports, such as lacrosse. Head injuries among former professional football players (and the resulting attention associated with their reporting) have made a negative impact on parents. Pop Warner, the popular youth football league, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012, and Dr. Julian Bailes, chief medical officer for Pop Warner, told ESPN that concerns about head injuries were "the No. 1 cause" for this decline. Other causes have been attributed to economic downturn and the expense of playing football, though most team sports have seen this effect, albeit at different rates (or in the form of plateaus).
Whatever the cause for this dip in youth football participation, Americans still love to watch football—the 2014 Super Bowl grabbed a record 111.5 million viewers in the U.S. Televised soccer in the U.S. is growing exponentially, and the Lone Star State is among its top markets. The Neilson Company reported that, of English-language television markets in the U.S., Austin captured the seventh highest ranking in the country for 2010 World Cup viewing. And in the Spanish-language market, four Texas cities—Austin (No.9), Dallas-Ft. Worth (6), San Antonio (5), and Houston (3) were among the top ten audiences in the nation.
When the USMNT takes on Ghana, odds are good that the match will draw another record-setting American viewing. The 2010 FIFA World Cup round-of-16 match between these two countries drew what was, at the time, the nation’s largest TV soccer audience of 19.4 million viewers. All eyes were on Landon Donovan as he scored the goal for the tie, which occurred off a penalty kick set up by Dempsey and sent the Americans into their first World Cup overtime match.
Whether the favorite player is Dempsey, Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Omar Gonzalez, or any of the other outstanding roster members, the USMNT reflects diversity. The preliminary team of 30 picked by coach Jurgen Klinsmann in May represents 24 different clubs from all over the world, including Dempsey’s Seattle Sounders, Texas’ Houston Dynamos (midfielder Brad Davis), and five other MLS teams. Of this preliminary roster, 25 players have appeared in at least one FIFA World Cup qualifying match for this 2014 cycle; that includes Dempsey, who has earned more than 100 caps in his career, each signifying play in a match as a USMNT member.
When host country Brazil battles Croatia in the first game of the FIFA World Cup come mid-June, Dempsey and the team will be preparing for their first game against Ghana a few days later. And the nation—with Texas leading pack—will be donning their red, white, and blue and settling in to watch, prepared to cheer on what could be arguably called “America’s team.”