Soccer’s ever-increasing popularity in the US is clear.

It has not happened on its own, though, and Hispanics – through local soccer leagues, Major League Soccer (MLS) Clubs and Youth Academies, and under the US Soccer umbrella (the national governing body for soccer in the United States) – have played a crucial role in the growth of “the beautiful game” in the United States.

As the reader will see throughout this article, Hispanics’ unique national cultures extend and intertwine through American soccer.  They are avid followers of the game and, as players, are becoming an essential part of the American game.  Indeed, the turn of the 21st century marked a turning point for Hispanics as players in the U.S.

We can look to the airwaves to see how deeply ingrained soccer is in US Hispanic culture.  For instance, Univision’s UniMás March 2013 broadcast of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier between the USA and Mexico drew 4.8 million viewers: it is the most watched program in the network’s history.  It was also the most watched World Cup Qualifier ever aired on ESPN.

The 2010 World Cup provides another sample of the power of soccer in the US Hispanic community.  For instance, the match between Argentina and Mexico reached 7.9 million US Hispanics ages 18 to 49, which was higher than the NFL’s Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 for the same demographic (7.3 million). 

During an interview in April 2013 with Major League Soccer Executive Vice President of Competition, Technical and Game Operations Nelson Rodriguez, we discussed Hispanics’ role in American soccer culture both as spectators and participants.  Rodriguez, alluding to the rise of soccer in the U.S. as a mainstream sport, pointed out that “it is an extreme positive, that much like the cultures from which they may have come, [US Hispanics] are finding that soccer is very much a part of the everyday fabric of the U.S. and Canada.”  When we consider that 85% of the US Hispanic population has roots in countries where soccer is the dominant sport, soccer undoubtedly represents a strong passion point for the US Hispanic community that translates to high viewership and participation rates.

US Hispanics are no longer only watching soccer from home and the stands; rather, they are starting to participate at the professional level.

In the U.S, Hispanics have an ardent passion for soccer, and as players they possess a valuable skill set that professional leagues value.  “They infuse a particular flavor of soccer unique to their cultures and a deep passion for the game… Major League Soccer and all of the great clubs and leagues in the world count among their most influential players and coaches those of Hispanic descent,” argued Rodriguez.  He added that Hispanics’ affinity for the sport “is expressed in an obvious joy for playing and a relentless commitment to try to win.”

Independent soccer leagues – in other words, leagues that do not fall under U.S. Soccer’s purview – have traditionally been the primary alternative available to young US Hispanic players.  Participation rates across the U.S. are staggering, and some of the nation’s top undiscovered talent resides in large US Hispanic markets and are confined to these unaffiliated leagues.  For example, as of April 2013, there are an estimated 95 independent soccer leagues in the Los Angeles DMA alone.  With an average of 1000 players per league, nearly 100,000 independent Hispanic soccer league players in the L.A. DMA participate in year-long seasons on both weekdays and weekends. 

Only recently, though, could these leagues’ best players aspire to break out and play at the professional level.

By advancing to MLS youth academies, undiscovered Hispanic soccer talent is starting to play a key role in US soccer culture’s growth.  The 2010 Census states that 16.5% of the US population – and 1 out of every 4 people in the U.S. under age 18 – is Hispanic; with 39% of MLS Youth Academy participants being of Latin-American descent as of April 2013 (excluding Canadian teams; Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union did not report), Hispanics are over-indexing by a factor of 2.3. 

Although Hispanic fan affinity and participation levels have recently increased, opportunities to play professionally in the U.S. have historically been scarce.  Only over the last 5 to 10 years have US Hispanic players enjoyed increased attention from professional soccer leagues, U.S. Soccer, and MLS Clubs as they search for homegrown players and increasingly depend on youth academies for new talent.

 

MLS HOMEGROWN, HISPANIC PLAYERS SHOW QUALITY OF HISPANIC TALENT AND SOCCER’S SIGNIFICANCE IN LARGEST MARKETS

An overwhelming proportion of the nation’s best young players are Hispanic.

In fact,4 of ESPN’s Top 10 US soccer players under 21 are Hispanic, (http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/soccerusa/id/1009?cc=5901).  Prospects have traditionally come from universities, but the MLS academies have produced top talent that is making an impact in the US and abroad.

“We [at Major League Soccer] anticipate that the first generation Hispanic, or assimilated Hispanic, within the US and Canada will continue to look at Major League Soccer as a league of choice [and] we are finding that a larger number of Hispanics look to play in the MLS and are entering our academy system,” according to Rodriguez.

The future of the sport also hinges on the quality of Hispanic prospects and their development.

When looking closely at the youth rosters posted on each Major League Soccer club’s website, we find that as of April 2013, approximately 39% of all MLS youth soccer academy participants are Hispanic (excluding Canadian teams; Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union did not report.)  Factor in that as of March 2013, an estimated 28% of professional MLS players are Hispanic – a 29% increase since 2009 – and you begin to see how US professional soccer is taking on a more Hispanic “flavor.”

The nation’s 5 largest markets – plus San Jose – have the greatest proportion of Hispanics in MLS Youth Academies, argues Sacha van der Most, Technical Director of the Chivas USA Youth Academy.  A quick look at the numbers proves that he is right.

Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Houston, Chicago, and San Jose’s youth academies average 54% Hispanic participation according to their posted youth rosters, with Los Angeles (which includes the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA) leading all markets at 69%.  Clearly, there is a high demand for Hispanic youth talent in strong soccer markets across the U.S.

Talent coming from the academies can only get better.  “For the first time, youth academy directors are being sent to Europe to learn to develop players… [as the] MLS wants to be one of the top 5 leagues in the world by 2022,” says van der Most.  He added that the “MLS realized the need to develop players at home and that the college system cannot do it alone,” and that MLS academies see Hispanic talent as vital to the league’s efforts to reach its 2022 goal.

Indeed, the MLS SuperDraft’s landscape is changing.  “As it stands, [the 2013] SuperDraft class was not touted as one of the most talented in recent history, and as teams continue to look to their academies for homegrown talent, this may be the norm going forward,” according to Sports Illustrated’s Avi Creditor (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130117/2013-mls-superdraft-five-thoughts/#ixzz2Seizw9Pq).

Seeing how much of that homegrown talent is Latin-American indicates that US Hispanics will have unprecedented access to opportunities with Major League Soccer in the coming years.

 

INTERNATIONAL SOCCER, US SOCCER, AND THE HISPANIC PLAYER

The US Soccer Federation has also benefited from Hispanic talent.  “In the past, Hispanics have contributed to U.S. Men’s National Soccer team talent growth, but we are seeing it now more than ever,” according to Oscar Pareja, Head Coach of Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids.  Considering how, as of April 2013, Hispanic players make up as much as 33% of all US Soccer Federation youth team rosters according to player pools posted on www.ussoccer.com, we see Pareja’s point.

Taking Pareja’s point a step further, let’s consider the following statistics on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s system of men’s and youth teams:

25% of the players cycled through the 2013 U.S. Men’s National Team are Hispanic

29% of the players cycled through the 2013 U.S. Men’s Under-20 Team players are Hispanic

36% of the players cycled through the 2013 US Men’s Under-18 Team players are Hispanic

This trend shows us that U.S. Soccer’s youth talent is increasingly coming from the Hispanic community – a pattern evident at the MLS level, as well.

Top US Hispanic players are also on the minds of talent scouts in other parts of the world.  Often, Hispanic athletes play a multinational role in either professional leagues, or national teams.

For example, U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) standouts Hercules Gomez and Jose Torres both play in Liga MX (Mexico) clubs Santos and Tigres, respectively.  Another American-born Hispanic player, Joe Corona, plays for Club Tijuana, and left the Mexican U-22 team for the USMNT in 2012.  Paul Arriola, who graduated from the LA Galaxy Youth Academy in May 2013, preferred the option to play for Liga MX team Club Tijuana over a career in U.S. pro soccer.

Another case of talent transfers between the U.S. and Mexico is American-born Edgar Castillo, who is of Mexican descent, played for several Liga MX teams since 2006 and the Mexican Youth National Team, before choosing the USMNT uniform in 2009.  On the other hand, FC Dallas Youth Academy star graduate Richard Sanchez, plays for FC Dallas and for the Mexican U-20 team.

This is not only happening in Mexico, though, as El Salvador’s 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup roster boasts 4 players born in the United States.  Andy Najar, who was born in Honduras and graduated from an MLS Academy (D.C. United), also enjoyed a successful career in the U.S. before moving on to play for the elite Belgian Pro League team, Anderlecht.

From local soccer leagues and MLS youth academies, to the U.S. Soccer Federation, Mexico’s Liga MX and beyond, we find that US Hispanic youth players represent a growing proportion of the US soccer talent pool and that this trend is only expected to grow.

Michael Lewis of FOX Sports Latino said it best when he asserted that, “Major League Soccer got it years ago.  The future is Latino and in many respects, that future is now” (http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/sports/2012/03/12/rise-latinos-in-major-league-soccer/).

In the end, Hispanic youth soccer is shaping the American game.

 

About PRIMETIME Sports & Entertainment

PRIMETIME Sports & Entertainment is a marketing firm specializing in the U.S. Hispanic Market.  Its multicultural team has a proven track record of developing and executing sports and entertainment-driven marketing platforms that maximize consumer engagement and deliver results.  Some of PRIMETIME’s projects include Major League Soccer’s Sueño MLS – Presented by Allstate, Beneful Soccer Platform, Copa Bud Light, Romario vs. Campos Farewell match, the 100-Hour Chivas Game, Lowe’s Freestyle Soccer Tour, and international matches, among many others.  For more information, please visit www.ptimesports.com.

 

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