Washingtonians caught World Cup fever last summer. The packed bars and record television ratings testified to how far the sport of soccer has come in the nation’s capital and the country.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Brian Katz describes himself as a “big D.C. sports fan” who showed no interest in soccer growing up. But the Gaithersburg resident joined supporters of the U.S. men’s national team in the chants of “I believe that we will win” that rang out across the city from H Street to Adams Morgan as the tournament took place in Brazil.
“We were absorbed in the whole World Cup experience and had lots of fun watching the U.S. play,” recalls Katz, who says he plans to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, taking place in Canada starting June 6. “Soccer is becoming a major sport in America. Winning and success will solidify it as a national and major league-caliber sport for the country to watch.”
While the Washington area had the highest TV ratings for the World Cup of any American media market, participation in soccer has grown tremendously as well. Israeli-born Tamir Linhart, 46, founder and president of soccer training company Golden Boot Soccer, has contributed to the sport’s growth in the Washington area. He points to the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. as the moment when soccer began making inroads.
“The growth has been tremendous both on the youth level and the professional level. In the past it used to be more of a sport that foreigners play, immigrants, and today it has become a sport for the masses, for the youth,” says Linhart. “The level is getting better, and it is just beautiful to see how many more kids are playing — the sheer numbers, but also the passion that they have about the game. They watch games on TV. They know the names.”
According to U.S. Youth Soccer, more than three million players between the ages of 5 and 19 registered for programs in 2014. The U.S. Census reports that in 2009 more than 13 million Americans across all age ranges participated in soccer, making it the third most played sport in the United States behind basketball and baseball/softball.
Linhart was elected to the Washington Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, after playing soccer professionally for Hapoel Tel Aviv and the Washington Warthogs, as well as at the collegiate level during his time at George Mason University. He says the local Jewish community has embraced soccer.
Golden Boot, which runs soccer-training programs for youth ages 3 to 18, is partnered with Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax and last year renovated its field.
“They had an unplayable field before. And then I put Bermuda grass there and created a beautiful facility for Gesher, and it became a hub for Golden Boot,” says Linhart.
Golden Boot is also partnered with AC Milan, a professional Italian football club.
Golden Boot has run an AC Milan camp for the past eight years in which kids play with both club coaches and Golden Boot trainers. It was the first program to take advantage of the renovated field. Linhart says he plans to run a Hapoel Tel Aviv camp next summer.
For David Weiner, manager of the Soccer Association of Montgomery’s Rockville Soccer Club, soccer’s popularity in Israel translates to the sport’s popularity in the American Jewish community.
“The Israeli influence parlays into Jewish society and it certainly has increased the exposure of the sport to Jewish youth,” says Weiner.
According to Weiner, in order to play you have to pay a registration fee. At the Soccer Association of Montgomery, that fee runs approximately $155.
While affordability is an issue for some families, laments Weiner, a 53-year-old New Jersey native who played high school soccer, his club is expanding from nine teams to 13 for the fall season. He says the sport will continue to grow as the men’s and women’s national teams gain more success and that the sport is becoming more popular with girls.
“Soccer will grow in this country,” Linhart predicts. “And not just grow — the level will be much higher. The U.S. national team is already a major national team in the world, among the top 30 teams consistently. The women’s soccer team is among the best in the world. So I’m very optimistic.
“I’m biased, but for me it’s the best sport.”
Related: How the FIFA corruption scandal could affect Israel