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Soccer is a popular youth sport. Why does the pro game still fall short in the U.S.?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi announced that he was taking his talents to Miami's floundering Major League Soccer team, American soccer fans once again hoped this might be the sport's foothold to popularity in the U.S. The MLS has been gaining in popularity in recent years. Next week's all-star game in Washington is sold out. And soccer is one of the most popular youth sports in the country. But why does the professional game still seem to be falling short in the U.S.? We've called Kevin James to talk about that. He's director of Vienna Youth Soccer. That's in Vienna, Va. - for more on this. Kevin, good morning.

KEVIN JAMES: Good morning. Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So it seems like a lot of kids start out playing soccer in this country. But then they gravitate to other sports or quit. Why do you think that's happening?

JAMES: So I think that it's common across all countries. The nice thing about the United States, depending on how you look at things, is we just have a very high volume of kids playing. So you know, the larger that number, the simple reality is whether you look at the pro game or the college game, there's only so many kids that can play at that level from a number perspective. And there is opportunity to play any sport almost, you know, in the United States from an accessibility standpoint.

MARTIN: Do you see a difference between the boys and girls in terms of the sport's kind of - I don't know - reach? I mean, U.S. women's soccer, of course, is a phenomenal success story. I was at the grocery store last night and I saw a bunch of little girls with Rapinoe jerseys on, which I thought was pretty amazing. So what do you think? Do you think there's a gender difference there?

JAMES: Yes, of course. There's going to be a little bit of a difference between gender depending on your location and time of year. With the Women's World Cup coming up, I do think it will spike, which is great. But it's a little bit - it depends on the culture of where you live.

MARTIN: Yeah, that makes sense. So do you think that the U.S. league is yet competitive with Europe? I mean, Europe still, you know, has the top players and the leagues and, you know, the funding. And, you know, we, you know, even, you know, bring coaches over and certainly a lot of players. You know, we're excited about the European players. I mean, obviously we're excited about our homegrown stars. But still, I mean, do you think the U.S. league is competitive with the European League yet, particularly on the men's side?

JAMES: I think it depends on how you define competitive. For the sake of today, you know, I look at it by the number of eyeballs that watch the games. And, you know, from that standpoint, no, we're not. We just don't have the eyes on our games like, you know, the Premier League does. Messi may help that. I mean, we've seen that already with, you know, Miami's Instagram exploding. And I would attribute a lot of that to international eyes now looking at Miami, not necessarily, you know, the nation internally looking at him, although some of that numbers will be from that. But, no, the TV rights deals that the Premier League has far exceed any of the TV rights deals that the MLS has.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, turning to the MLS game in Washington, D.C., are you going?

JAMES: I am.

MARTIN: All right. Well, send pictures. All right. Kevin James is the director of Vienna Youth Soccer. That's in Vienna, Va. Kevin, thank you so much.

JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARC DE SOLEIL'S "SUNDOWN AVENUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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