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The Games Continue: Soccer for the Next Generation of Americans

The United States may have missed its chance to play Spain in the World Cup final Sunday (and the Netherlands in the semifinal, and Uruguay in the quarterfinal), but similar battles take place every day on American turf, where the world meets for pick-up soccer games. There’s weekdays outside an MIT building in Cambridge, weekend mornings behind the White House, and barefoot on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. There are, in fact, times when the U.S. can outrun Ghana and Mexico gets its second goal against Argentina (as long as El Salvador brings the ball, India packs the cones, and Ivory Coast remembers his cleats).

There aren’t many places in the world where such diverse groups organically come out to play, but they are growing in number across the country. Currently, one in eight Americans is foreign-born, and of them, 85 percent are spread throughout the largest 100 metropolitan areas. Although longstanding gateways like New York and Los Angeles received about one in five net immigrant gains between 2000 and 2009, foreign-born populations are growing fastest in smaller places like Jackson, MS and Nashville, TN.

With the growth and dispersion of the foreign-born population (particularly from Latin America and Africa), the notion of soccer as a white suburban sport is changing. Indeed, a majority of the nation’s immigrants live in big metropolitan suburbs. As Alan Berube has illustrated, the fastest growing foreign-born population is from Africa, and most of that group’s members are settling in suburbia.

And that may be the key that marks the long heralded, but never materializing, evolution of soccer into more than just a participant sport here. Two Saturdays ago, a record-setting 19.4 million viewers tuned in to ABC and Univision to watch the U.S. squad lose to Ghana in extra time. That’s more than this year’s NBA finals or the 2009 World Series, according to the L.A. Times. (Granted, it got about one-fifth of the attention that Super Bowl XLIV did, but…)

The numbers are a solid testament to the growing interest in soccer stateside, and demographics have played an important role in that growth. At least we’ll have some reinforcements if Team USA wants to come back to win it in four years. Until then, I’ll be waiting with the rest of the world playing pickup.