America's tepid interest in soccer has been set to boil several times over the decades, from Pele's arrival in New York in 1975 to the U.S. women's World Cup victory in 1999 to David Beckham signing with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007.
But football, the kind with helmets and shoulder pads, still rules America in 2010.
As the United States faces England in the World Cup today, in what is probably the most anticipated soccer match in the history of the game in America, it's time to ask: Will this tournament be the catalyst that finally drives soccer to the forefront of our sports consciousness?
ESPN is throwing all its muscle, including multiple cable networks and a massive online presence, toward covering the tournament. Landon Donovan, the U.S. team's most recognizable star, has been featured in countless TV commercials in the run-up to the games.
But even as the world at large is obsessed with soccer, many in this sports-mad nation are ignoring it and instead immersing themselves in talk of NCAA conference realignment or whether LeBron James will leave Cleveland.
Gordon Kelly isn't spending much time worrying about how popular American soccer is or will be. He has games to watch.
Kelly, an airline pilot who lives in Chapel Hill, is on vacation through the end of the World Cup. A member of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, he hosted a party Friday morning in his home for the first match of the tournament between Mexico and South Africa. Soccer's popularity is below hockey in the United States, he said, but he's not bothered by that.
In other parts of the world, soccer teams have been ingrained in communities for more than 100 years. We have the Yankees and Red Sox, and England has Manchester United and Liverpool. When it comes to fandom, it is tough to compete with history.
"Until it becomes part of the community, it's a long way off until it's anywhere like it is in other parts of the world," Kelly said.
Kelly, 44, has attended games in Scotland where the streets were filled with fans wearing the jerseys of the hometown team. Prior to the game, fans empty the bars and walk toward the stadium singing team chants. Kids learn fandom from their fathers, who learned it from theirs.
In the United States, more and more kids seem to be playing soccer every year. Young fathers who grew up playing soccer are taking their children to games, but it will take generations of that before American soccer traditions can match those of baseball, for instance.
The Capital Area Soccer League has 9,000 youth participants. But it began in the mid-70s with about 45 kids, said CASL CEO Charlie Slagle, who has been in charge since 2001.
He likened soccer's acceptance in this country to being on a "really long curve. We're part way around that."
America's soccer history stretched long before Pele. Until last year, much of that history was on display at the National Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum in Oneonta, N.Y. But the economic downturn hit the museum hard, and the building was shuttered late last year. The museum was a 30-minute drive from Cooperstown, home to the baseball Hall of Fame.
Eventually, many of the museum's artifacts will be moved to Hillsborough and housed at Sports Endeavors. That company is the parent of Eurosport, the world's largest soccer specialty retailer.
Brendan Moylan, chief operating officer, said the company volunteered to house the collection and make it available to the public. Although the museum closed, the hall of fame will continue to induct new members.
He doesn't believe that the museum's failure to survive says much about the popularity of soccer in this country. Go to a soccer field on any weekend, he said, and count the number of kids playing. "The numbers speak for themselves."
Young players look up to the best of the best, said Kupono Low, a midfielder for Cary's Carolina RailHawks. Fifteen years ago, not many Americans would have recognized an English soccer star. These days, David Beckham is one of the more recognizable athletes in the country.
Low theorizes that American interest could spike if it could produce its own high-paid, high-wattage star. Kids will see that there is money to be made playing soccer and might concentrate on soccer dribbling instead of the basketball kind. And if the United States makes a deep run in the World Cup?
"We'll have more youth soccer players aim high," Low said.
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