Brian Harvey went back to the locker room impressed after warm-ups.
“Looks like a good crowd tonight,” he told a teammate.
It was 1968, and Harvey, still years from being Mr. Soccer in Oklahoma, had just relocated to the United States from his native England. He was playing in the fledgling North American Soccer League, and he was getting used to some new attitudes about his sport.
Soccer wasn’t just unpopular. It was unwelcome in many places.
But then one night in Kansas City, the stands were nearly full when Harvey and his Dallas Tornado teammates went out for pregame. The crowd would eventually number nearly 15,000.
Unbeknownst to Harvey, The 5th Dimension was playing a concert after the match.
“So,” Harvey said, laughing all these years later, “it wasn’t such a great turnout for soccer.”
As the U.S. prepares for a World Cup match of epic proportions, it’s obvious that soccer’s place in the American landscape has changed. More than 25 million Americans watched the United States’ last match against Portugal, a number that far eclipsed games in the most recent NBA Finals and World Series. Even though Thursday’s match against Germany is in the middle of the day, huge TV numbers are expected.
This change didn’t happen suddenly like a Messi free kick or a Ronaldo run. It was more reminiscent of how Spain ruled international soccer in recent years, with a consistent but effective build-up.
No one has had any more of a front-row seat to that change than Harvey, the longtime soccer coach at Oklahoma City University.
When he came to the U.S., professional soccer was trying to make a place in the sports scene. The NASL, born out of a desire to capitalize on the success of the 1966 World Cup in England, had 17 teams spread around the U.S. and Canada. But because of low attendance and no profits, only five teams remained after the first season.
The league scuttled along for several years. Harvey remembers a match at the massive Rose Bowl that drew only 3,000 fans.
But then in 1975 came a huge boost — Pele.
The Brazilian megastar was in semi-retirement when he joined the New York Cosmos, but he sure didn’t seem past his prime. Harvey witnessed Pele’s wizardry several times while on the pitch with him.
“He scored a hat trick against us,” Harvey remembered of one match, “and then he went off at halftime.”
“He was the player of his generation.”
And Harvey believes that Pele was part of the buildup of soccer in the U.S.
“Pele was the one … that helped turn a corner,” he said. “Pele was synonymous with everything that was soccer and everything that was Brazilian. He made the trek to the United States, and I think that really helped generate a lot more interest in the sport.”