This article will run Saturday in the newspaper.
SAN FRANCISCO — Sergio Busquets sat at a podium in the St. Regis Hotel on Wednesday afternoon as he thought about the state of soccer in the United States.
Busquets (known simply as “Sergio” to soccer fans) is one of the 15 best soccer players in the world. He’s a Spanish midfielder for FC Barcelona, the fourth-wealthiest sports franchise on the planet. Saturday they play an international friendly match at Levi’s Stadium against the fifth-wealthiest sports franchise, Manchester United.
It’s an exhibition game, and most of the top players from each team won’t play. Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s best player, won’t even be there. But tickets still are selling for as much as $1,000, and they will probably sell out.
Has America gone soccer crazy? Just a few weeks ago, the final game of the Women’s World Cup, which the United States won 5-2, drew 26.7 million television viewers in America, according to the New York Times.
It was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, and it drew more viewers than Game 7 of the 2014 World Series between the Giants and the Royals, and more viewers than the deciding Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cavaliers.
Crazy, right? It gets crazier.
On July 21, 90,000 fans bought tickets to the Rose Bowl to see Barcelona play an exhibition against the Los Angeles Galaxy, an MLS team that signed 35-year-old former Liverpool star midfielder Steven Gerrard in January. Plenty of NFL teams couldn’t draw 90,000 fans even for a regular-season game.
The next day, July 22, Busquets held his press conference on the third floor of the St. Regis.
Back to Busquets at the podium.
“We’re glad that we saw a full house the other day,” he said. “We really do feel the support in every city that we go to. We just want to make the fans happy and enjoy watching Barca because it’s not something you can see every day here.”
What does FC Barcelona get out of playing in the United States?
“It’s good for the Barca brand to play here,” Busquets says. “People here like soccer now more than ever. Now that some of the European players are leaving to the U.S., I think the U.S. league is getting more and more competitive, and that’s important for us.”
Cut to Friday morning.
Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney sat at a table in an interview room next to Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes, just one day before the exhibition against Barcelona.
The interview room was the size of a spacious walk-in closet, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet — probably enough space for the media that typically covers the Earthquakes. Not nearly enough space for the 50 British and Spanish reporters squeezed on top of each other waiting to interview one of the most famous athletes in the world.
Rooney slouched back in his chair, seemingly trying to create as much room as possible between him and the media. His arms were folded across his chest, and his big, hard head was poking out of a black hoodie. He looked more like a boxer or a Greco-Roman wrestler than a soccer player.
Wayne, how do you view the state of soccer in the United States?
He raised an eyebrow, sat up and leaned forward toward the microphone.
“I think every time we come back here, we get the sense that it’s getting bigger,” Rooney said. “I’m sure it will keep growing and one day it will be as big as it is around Europe.”
By the look of things, he may be right. Hopefully the interview rooms will grow, too.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.