Despite what appears to be the primary discussion of the week, the sign of soccer success in the United States will not be when the men's national team finally advances to the semifinals or championship of the FIFA World Cup. It will come when the nation is finally able to experience World Cup competition without all these silly discussions about whether the sport will catch on in America.
For those who haven't noticed — a group that seems to include columnist Ann Coulter and former NBA star Kareem Abdul Jabbar — it already has.
Soccer is played by more than 13 million Americans, according to the most recent U.S. census figures. This puts it squarely in the top four most popular competitive sports in the nation — behind only basketball, baseball/softball and football.
So leaves soccer ranked ahead of tennis, golf, volleyball, bowling and even hockey, all of which are enjoyed and followed without questioning as to their permanence and growth potential in American life.
Forty years ago, there were said to be only 100,000 youth in America playing soccer. Today, there are more than 3 million children registered on soccer teams. And no region in the nation is that popularity greater than in Northern California, which, according to the most recent U.S. Youth Soccer figures, boasts more than 171,000 members. Many play in recreational leagues or for competitive clubs such as Santa Rosa United Youth Soccer, which has enough demand each year to field two teams in a number of age groups.
In truth, soccer has been growing steadily for more than 50 years with no signs of slowing. Its popularity only accelerated 20 years ago with the U.S. hosting of the World Cup, the catalyst for the debut of the Major League Soccer. The league is now profitable, averages 18,800 fans per game and boasts 19 teams, including the San Jose Earthquakes which is in the process of building a $70 million stadium — with no public money.
As demonstrated this week, America also has no apologies to make on the world stage. The women's national team has won the World Cup title twice. And the men's national team has qualified to play in the World Cup in every competition since 1990, advancing past the group stage four times, including once in 2002 when it made it to the final eight.
The team's resilient performance Tuesday in its heart-breaking loss to Belgium, which recorded a 9.6 Nielsen rating, the highest ever for a World Cup game on ESPN, showed less about how far soccer needs to go in America than how far it has come.
Yes, we call it a field instead of a "pitch." We call it a team rather than a "side." And we call it soccer instead of "football." But let's not call it an experiment anymore.
Soccer is red, white and blue enough for many, and it's here to stay.
If in doubt, ask a kid.