by Kurt Streeter
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking Sunday's pulse-pounding soccer -- the long-suffering U.S. nationals only one hard header from winning the Confederations Cup in South Africa -- will dramatically change the game's fortunes on U.S. soil.
But fans of futbol, have no fear. Your game is going to be just fine on these shores. All the frenzied speculation over whether this latest run will finally vault soccer to big league status? Wasted frenzy.
Big league, I mean consistently big league in performance, hoopla and status? It's not going to happen. Not for a while. And that's absolutely OK. For one thing, at the grass-roots level of youth play, boosted and shaped by Latino immigration, the game continues its steady march.
While this has yet to translate into mammoth increases in TV ratings and gate receipts, or into deep and palpable sizzle, it's a groundswell that eventually will pervade.
The world is a different place than it was even four years back: flat and connected and biting at the status quo. Just as it blindsided political observers in the presidential election, grass-roots momentum will eventually have a big effect on what sports we love and why we love them.
There's more. To pit soccer against football, baseball and basketball is to lack perspective, to starve ourselves of nuance. Does a sport absolutely have to launch itself into the realm of the big three to be a success? Why? Who says? And what are we missing by thinking it does?
For years golf plugged along contentedly in the shadow of the "major" sports. There was little gnashing of teeth. Golf was still considered great. Then came one transcendent player and the game became transcendent in our minds. Change happens slowly. Then a Tiger Woods arrives, and change happens fast.
"The NBA doesn't shut down because it does not have the same TV ratings as the NFL does, the NHL isn't terrible because it does not draw as much as the NBA," said Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, speaking by phone from South Africa on Monday. "Is it around the corner or even a goal for us to surpass the NFL or the other major American sports? No, it isn't. But soccer shouldn't have an inferiority complex because we aren't those sports."
Gulati reminded that his sport continues its rise in popularity. TV ratings aren't the be-all, end-all, but they're an important yardstick. While it's true Major League Soccer's TV ratings are treading stormy waters, overall soccer ratings rise dramatically when cable viewers on Spanish-language networks are considered.
During broadcasts of crème-de-la-crème games from Europe, TV viewership rivals the big brothers.
Example: English- and Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2006 World Cup final had 16.9 million viewers in the U.S. That is comparable to the U.S. audience for the 2005 World Series, a four-game sweep by the Chicago White Sox that averaged 17.2 million viewers, though that was a new low for the World Series.
"The goal is growth," said Gulati, voice vigorous the day after his team's hard-luck 3-2 loss to Brazil. "I don't expect that overnight a tournament like this will make us way more popular, but it's another plug along the way. Now it's true that we might have gotten there a little earlier if I'd been putting gold medals around the players heads on Sunday instead of silver medals, but this tournament gave us great momentum."
Since they now have our attention, momentum must be sustained. A big test looms in August: the U.S. in Mexico City to play the Mexican nationals. Will the Americans fight as hard as they did last week?
Another key test is a long-term one: how to take advantage of the deep and continuous boom in youth soccer.
"We have to create a link for the kids between going to the games on weekends . . . and what happened on the field in South Africa on Sunday," Gulati said. "All the kids playing Little League baseball, they feel that link, that connection, with a guy like A-Rod. . . . We must do the same."
This shouldn't be hard. In the Southern California-based Coast Soccer League, one of the largest competitive youth leagues in America, participation was swelling long before the Confederations Cup. The league this year will have about 2,600 teams, 300 more than last year, meaning 40,000 boys and girls play high-level soccer in this league alone.
Think 40,000 kids are playing football in Southern California? Think again. Think soccer's Tiger Woods is among them? He or she could well be.
Tellingly, going deeper inside the numbers, Coast Soccer League official Michelle Romero estimated at least 60% of the teams are predominantly Latino, largely the urban sons and daughters of immigrants, or immigrants themselves.
Here lies the future, the match that can start a fire.
As is happening in many other areas in American life, it will be these kids who shape the way the game is viewed, kids who live in homes in which futbol has been revered for generations, kids overlooked by skeptics who say the world's game will never truly be one of "our" games.
Soccer skeptics, sorry, you're wrong. Times are changing; the nation and world are changing. Slowly, then at breakneck speed, our favorite sports will change too. Soccer fans, keep your heads, and have no fear. The foundation for your sport is strong, and growing. It might never bethe mythical national pastime. It doesn't need to be.