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The clock of American soccer

Every several years in America, we hear a familiar narrative about soccer in the US. That its time has come and that soccer will finally become a, if not the dominant sport in America. Usually it comes around the World Cup, especially when the US performs well, which for the men means getting through the group stage. For the women, it’s winning. Sometimes it happens around a star player coming to the American pro league. And sometimes it’s when the world comes to the US, like it will in the 2026 World Cup. But you can largely set a clock by the storyline of soccer’s takeover stateside.

That is what we’re hearing now, as the American team advances to the knockout round of 16 in this World Cup after an exhausting 1-0 win over Iran to finish second in their group. That prelude also included a scoreless draw with England, giving American soccer fans some faint hope that they can play with the best in the world. Which means that the young US squad will play the Netherlands Saturday for a spot in the quarterfinals, likely against Argentina and the world’s reigning megastar Lionel Messi. Who, to close the circle, is reportedly debating playing for Miami FC of the MLS next season in admittedly the twilight of his career. These are signs and sources American soccer supporters – two of whom live in my house – use as evidence of the sport’s arrival. Whether it’s real or just a place holder depends on your level of faith and devotion. But with current success on the pitch and the world coming to America in four years, the prelude has been written.

This story has been told before, typically with the same ending. If you’re old enough, you remember Pele’s New York residency, when the Cosmos became the city’s most popular team for a hot minute. That moment came and went, as did the American professional soccer leagues that collapsed in its wake. Since that time, we’ve enjoyed the steady but slow growth of American pro soccer and the MLS, marked occasionally by European imports nearing retirement and markets that fell temporarily for the sport, like Atlanta did selling out football stadiums for their new team. But by and large, soccer has managed reasonable growth in becoming one of the 20 best pro leagues in the world, one that should export more top talent than import. This is a noble accomplishment for a nation that speaks publicly of building walls and champions its own home grown pastimes – namely football, baseball, and basketball. So the fact that soccer has survived when other import games have failed to find an audience, like track or cycling, should be considered a win, if not at least a draw. But for a country that deems its pro champions “World Champions” without consideration, top 20 may not feel victorious.

There’s a library of arguments of why this moment will be different, usually cited by the long converted. They include the changing demographics of the US, some level of growth in youth soccer, the rise of the women’s game, predictions of the demise of American football, and so on. The assumption is that American soccer has played the long game, but victory is inevitable. And as soccer fans will tell you, all you have to do is watch the sport to fall in love with it.

As someone who grew up in the south on red-blooded American sports and has become something of soccer convert, I’d suggest a different perspective. Much of the conversation about soccer in the US focuses on the rest of the world. Like, if it’s the most popular sport everywhere else, it will eventually be so here as well. The problem is, you can say that about a lot of things. Like gun reform laws. Or universal health care. Or month long summer vacations. The fact is, American inevitability is quite contrary to global norms. When people talk about this American experiment, it goes far beyond our way of governance to how we work, live, travel, and recreate. Which is why the idea of a sport from foreign soils somehow becoming America’s pastime would be like giving up on SUVs and fast food. Americans love American football expressly because it’s not soccer. And it’s all ours. Which is why even though we get really excited about the World Cup, and the sport will continue to grow in the US, we’re still a long way from another revolution.

Has soccer arrived in the US? Only time will tell. But remember that we’ve seen this clock before.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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