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.”
Harvey moved to Oklahoma in 1981 and became coach of the Oklahoma City Slickers of the American Soccer League. His squad played in front of some big crowds over the next four seasons, including a championship game in Detroit in front of 42,000. But oftentimes, people were drawn not by passion but by wonder.
What was this sport?
Who were these players?
“It was more curiosity,” Harvey admitted.
That was better than the alternative, though.
“When I first arrived in Oklahoma City … soccer was a bad word,” Harvey said. “It was like it was a communist sport.”
The change in the years since has come incrementally. The 1994 World Cup that was held in the U.S. The 1999 Women’s World Cup when everyone was buzzing about Mia, Brandi and that sports bra. The growth of youth leagues everywhere from big cities to small towns. The 2010 World Cup when Americans watched in record numbers. The broadcast of English Premier League matches. The popularity of the FIFA video games. The advent of social media.
Time was, Americans had no sense of what soccer at its best looked like.
Harvey remembers walking down the streets of his hometown, Liverpool, one day during the 1966 World Cup. England, still recovering from the wounds left by World War II, was hosting the event, and fans from everywhere had descended on the country for matches.
Coming down the street toward him was a gaggle of Brazilian fans wearing their greens and yellows, cheering, chanting and having a great time.
“It’s a world party,” Harvey said. “Now, I think people are seeing that and getting a feel for it.”
And by all accounts, they are liking it. Millions are watching World Cup matches. Tens of thousands are attending Major League Soccer matches — and not because there’s a concert afterward either. That sort of growth didn’t happen in an instant, but it is happening.
“Things have most definitely changed,” Harvey said, “and for the better.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.