SEATTLE Former major league baseball infielder Jack Wilson says he'd likely have chosen a different career 20 years ago if soccer in this country was like it is today.
"It was probably the hardest decision I ever made, to be honest," said Wilson, a high-school star in soccer and baseball in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in the early 1990s. "My passion for baseball was good but it was nothing compared to my love for soccer."
Major League Soccer didn't exist yet, leaving few professional goals for teenage players to aspire to the way others dreamed of playing in a World Series or Super Bowl. There were no youth development programs run by pro teams to encourage a homegrown player like Seattle native DeAndre Yedlin, a Sounders FC defender who played for the United States in this year's World Cup.
And soccer's biggest boosters say that kind of development is key to someday rivaling mainstream U.S. pro sports like football, baseball, basketball and hockey. That Yedlin's generation was raised with an enhanced awareness of soccer, that will eventually lead to greater interest in and commercial success for a sport that's yet to permeate American culture the way many have long hoped.
"In some ways, it's a good thing I didn't have that kind of opportunity back then because I'd probably have stuck with soccer," joked Wilson, who earned $40 million over a dozen seasons with the Pirates, Mariners and Braves, but now prefers indoor soccer to softball as a recreational hobby. "I think if there was an MLS or if I'd known for sure it was coming, I might have gone for it. My life would probably have turned out a lot differently, with a lot less money."
The U.S. advance into the second round of the World Cup has heightened debate over whether this could signal soccer's "arrival" in this country's mainstream. By the most important measurement of such things the almighty dollar it isn't there yet, despite continued record levels of amateur participation by men and especially women.
But signs of gradual gains and future potential for the sport keep cropping up with each step taken by an American squad. The 2014 run ended Tuesday when the U.S. was eliminated in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium.
A combined 24.7 million people tuned into last week's U.S. draw with Portugal on ESPN and Univision, tying a record for the most-watched soccer game in our nation's history. The 18.2 million who watched it on ESPN alone set a record for the country's largest English-language soccer telecast, several times the numbers drawn by the Stanley Cup or NBA Finals.
FIFA says Americans purchased more than 200,000 tickets to the tournament, second-most in the world behind only host country Brazil. An estimated 20,000 Americans half the stadium attended the team's opening-round win over Ghana.
A surging Hispanic-American population is also carrying over soccer loyalties. While Hispanics comprise 20 percent of the nation's sports fans, 55 percent of them are interested in soccer.
And perhaps the biggest keys to soccer's continued growth here are so-called Millennials and their use of social media.
In March, the ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report found that, for the first time, MLS had caught MLB in popularity among 12-to-17-year-olds. The poll, managed by Luker on Trends, stated that roughly 18 percent of those surveyed listed themselves as "avid" fans of both leagues.
A Pew Research Center study in January found that 40 percent of young American adults aged 20-29 were looking forward to the World Cup, compared to only 13 percent among those 50 and older.
And with younger fans comes changed sports viewing habits of a wired generation following the action online or via smartphones at a greater rate than most other North American sports.
ESPN says a record 1.7 million concurrent viewers saw the U.S. vs. Germany game Thursday on its WatchESPN smartphone app.
Mobile application company theScore says subscriptions to its U.S. men's soccer team app for scores and updates the tournament's first two weeks was triple the combined sign-ups for the top three MLB teams the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers the opening two weeks of the baseball season. TheScore also says interest in its soccer sections nearly quadrupled over the past year, growing at a faster rate (292 percent) than baseball, basketball or hockey and second only to the NFL.
For Adrian Hanauer, general manager and part-owner of the Seattle Sounders, success with that younger demographic can't hurt.
"I'd rather be on the side of the young people than the old people," he quipped.
Hanauer's team was rated by Forbes as the league's most valuable, at $175 million up from a $30 million expansion price in 2009. He said the league's revenues and corporate support have grown steadily the past 15 years and the young demographics of devoted fans should keep them rising.