What Does the Rest of the World Know about Soccer that Americans Don't?
Couple that with the fact that the sports calendar is crowded enough as it is, and the addition of another sport is just not practical. The MLS has adapted to the marketplace, largely abandoning the huge football stadiums and settling in smaller, more intimate venues like the Chicago Fire's Toyota Park in Bridgeport, Illinois, that seats 20,000, or the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center in Carson, California, that hosts Los Angeles Galaxy games. While not exactly thriving, the league is mostly keeping its head above water and now serves as a legitimate feeder league for national team talent.
Salaries are not extravagant. Most importantly, several teams have deals with some of the club teams in Europe where they can "loan" their players out. This has led to some key national team members like Landon Donovan getting invaluable experience playing against the top players in the world.
That experience may be the key to the hopes of this year's national squad. Where in 1994, only two or three national team members had experience in Europe, the 2010 edition of Team USA features several bona fide international standouts. Most of the others perform as serviceable pros in some of the top leagues in Europe.
This has once again led to high expectations for the U.S. team. Ranked 14th in the world by FIFA, and drawing what most analysts are calling the weakest group in the tournament, Team USA is expected to finish second to England and move on to the round of 16. At least this goal is reasonable, if not spectacular.
However, that high ranking may be illusory. The U.S. team has glaring weaknesses on its back line and no forward with any credentials at all. The U.S. midfield is solid, even spectacular with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan recognized as two of the top players in the world at their positions. The goalkeeper Tim Howard has had success playing in England.
But the first game of the tournament for the Americans against England (ranked #3 in the world) will probably expose these weaknesses and show just how far American soccer has to go before it can compete at the top levels of international competition. While the U.S. defeated mighty Spain in the Confederation Cup earlier this year, they did not distinguish themselves otherwise in the tournament, losing to Italy badly and getting creamed by eventual winner Brazil.
Unlike some other periods in American soccer history, there is now a feeling that the curve is bending upward, although more gradually and with more realism than expected in the past. Those millions of kids who played the game are now growing up and the number of fans of the game is rising slowly but steadily. The women's game has helped capture the imagination of the pre-teen girl set, and Title IX has made college soccer a realistic goal for young women. Corporate interest in the game has never been higher.
But the game is not "poised" to leap into major sport status -- not now and not for the foreseeable future. The best that can be realized out of this year's World Cup is an uptick in interest by the casual fan that may translate into increased attendance at MLS games. ESPN is banking on force-feeding the game to Americans as every single match will be broadcast either over the air or on the web. ESPN's expectations for ratings are modest, but it is significant that at least as far as media interest, America will match the rest of the world for the first time.