Blue crabs. Natty Boh. Orioles. Ravens. Soccer isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Maryland or Baltimore.
But that’s changing, according to some of the sport’s most recognized Maryland faces.
Maryland boasts highly competitive youth leagues. Baltimore routinely ranks high in soccer viewership. Estately, a real estate blog, deemed Maryland the second most enthusiastic state about soccer .
The United States men’s national soccer team features a Maryland native and two products of the University of Maryland's national championship winning soccer teams in its starting lineup.
And for the first time since 2010, Maryland will field a men’s professional soccer team.
Yet the question remains: Is Maryland a soccer state?
“Absolutely. It’s been a soccer town for years,” said Pete Caringi, head coach of the nationally-ranked UMBC men’s soccer team .
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Caringi led the Retrievers to the highest winning percentage in the NCAA last season. He played professionally locally for the Washington Diplomats for one season back in 1978, and has coached professionally and at the collegiate level for decades.
He said Baltimore fell in love with the "beautiful game" in the 70s. In the 60s, Maryland was the first state to field three professional teams: the Baltimore Bays, the Baltimore St. Gerards and the Baltimore Rockets.
“It was a hot bed,” Caringi said.
Baltimore’s ethnic diversity paved way for the game, he said. “A lot of different fathers brought the game to Highlandtown. “But back then it was all Baltimore kids playing Baltimore kids."
Caringi remembers loading into two 1969 Chevys and driving with his buddies from East Baltimore to Washington D.C. to watch World Cup games on a closed circuit TV.
“It wasn’t on TV,” Caringi said. “People were wondering what the heck we were doing.”
Today, Baltimore ranks among the top-5 cities when it comes to soccer viewership. Charm City ranked third overall behind New York and Washington D.C. for viewership of Barclay’s English Premier League on NBC. Baltimore ranked second highest in viewership for the World Cup draw back in December 2013.
When the United States played Portugal to a record 25 million fans , Baltimore represented a 11.0 market share, ranked eighth overall across the country.
But Caringi is a realist.
“In this state other sports get a preference, but there is a tremendous soccer support here from high school to the club teams,” he said.
Brazilian soccer legend Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele, reinvigorated the love for the game in 1975 after joining the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. Pele played to sold out crowds and gave Americans a reason to cheer again.
English soccer star David Beckham did the same thing in 2007 after signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy allowing Major League Soccer to receive a short-lived boost from Beckham’s celebrity.
Beckham recently announced that he is returning to America after a philanthropic stint with Paris St. Germain, where he paid his multi-million dollar salary to a children’s charity. Beckham is now the majority owner of a yet-to-be-announced Miami based team, the newest MLS franchise. It's projected the team will be launched by 2017 .
But back to Maryland. Caringi believes therein lies the problem with sustaining American soccer fandom.
“The thing that has really helped U.S. soccer was that we were bringing over great players but we weren’t raising great players,” he said. “The next wave will try to sign more players from overseas, I just hope they don’t fall into the same problems of the 70s.”
An over-reliance of aging international talent on American teams is profitable in the short-term, but the success of the league cannot ebb and flow on a 39-year-old player’s twilight career. Perhaps that’s why Team USA’s leaders Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey this season returned to the MLS after semi-successful international careers with A.S. Roma and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively.
Currently Anne Arundel County native Kyle Beckerman, and both Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez , products of the always competitive University of Maryland, star for Team USA.
From Caringi’s roots in Highlandtown so too came one of Baltimore’s most successful soccer standouts in Santino Quaranta.
Quaranta was one of the youngest Major League Soccer players of all time. He signed with D.C. United out of Archibishop Curley High School when he was 16 years old, drafted eighth overall. Quaranta played in Major League Soccer from 2001 to 2011.
“It’s a different
era now. It’s an outlet,” Quaranta said. “There wasn’t as many outlets back then. It’s become a lot more professional in terms of the structure.”
In 2012, Quaranta and his childhood friend and former professional player Sean Rush co-founded Pipeline Soccer Academy in Baltimore County, which has grown to 50 youth teams in just two years. Quaranta also coaches the Professional Development League team the Baltimore Bohemians.
“[Maryland is] absolutely a soccer state. Just in terms of youth and interest in the game it’s astonishing,” he said.
So could Maryland support its own MLS franchise?
“It would be silly to not have a team on the water here,” he said. “It would be great for DC and Philly and New York. The ownership has to be right.
“First and foremost it has to be built around and Baltimore based. It can’t be in Laurel or Columbia,” Quaranta continued. “You have to embrace the fans and embrace the city. It’s a lot of hardworking and fun people. It has to be built downtown and the water. … You have to give them a voice.”
In the fall, Maryland will field its first professional soccer team since Crystal Palace Baltimore went on hiatus in 2010.
Head coach Tony Poarch will lead the Evergreen Diplomats to its inaugural season in the ASL Professional Soccer League. The league is modeled after the traditional European soccer schedule from fall to spring.
“It is exciting to be a part of something special happening in Maryland,” Poarch said. “The buzz about the Diplomats playing in Maryland is growing and we are receiving a lot of positive feedback from businesses and youth soccer clubs in the area.
“They are excited we are coming and that we will be involved with all youth soccer programs who ask us to help,” he continued. “All Marylander s from Baltimore to the D.C. Beltway are excited to have a team to call their own. With a large amount of our players we will have on our roster coming from the local area, they have someone they can reach out to and completely understand what it means to be from the community in our back yard.”
Poarch said he hopes a proactive community approach will build more interest in the team.
“Our idea of how the Diplomats will be different from most professional soccer teams in the USA,” Poarch said. “We want to be involved in community activities and its soccer roots with the development of the communities youth soccer players.
"European teams flourish in big and small cities and towns because their local community knows their players up close and personal. They are out in those towns talking with residents and taking active parts with the community in events outside soccer.”
The foundation for soccer in Maryland is strong, but questions remain for what happens after the World Cup?
For years interest in the game has balanced on the shoulders of Team USA. When the women’s side won the World Cup in 1999, the Women’s United Soccer Association was formed, but poor attendance led to the league’s downfall.
Quaranta said, “It’ll sustain a little bit. There’s a patriotic side of it.”
Caringi said, “I think they’re having a tough time criticizing it right now.”
Poarch said, “Win or lose, I think our team has proved it is going to be a team to count on being in the mix every four years for the World Cup. Soccer really never fades, just in the media world in most parts of the country. I think our 22-29 year old soccer fans are making a statement and what I believe we are seeing are the seeds that were sown 10-15 years ago.
"Eight to 12 years ago, you had fathers allowing their sons and daughters to play the beautiful game, but did not understand it enough to watch the game side by side with them. Now you have young kids asking their fathers to watch the game with them side by side. And because the dad played soccer and understands it, something special is happening.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that David Beckham was the majority owner of MLS expansion team Orlando City. Beckham is actually the owner of a team that will play based in Miami. ABC2 News regrets the error.