When will American soccer begin to overtake the big three American sports—football, baseball and basketball—and compete for America's best athletes?
No discussion in American soccer carries the enormous implications of this question. Soccer fans figure it has to happen, eventually. The soccer haters take it as a sign of the sport's impotence that we're still asking the question.
After the 1994 World Cup shattered tournament attendance records, soccer fans were certain that the glorious rise of the beautiful game in America was imminent.
Major League Soccer attempted to ride this wave of interest to re-launch professional soccer in the U.S. However, MLS soon faltered as attendance dropped and the league was forced to close two franchises in 2001.
The national team's quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup once again created a wave of enthusiasm. This time the strategies of MLS and U.S. soccer focused on building a foundation for slow and steady growth rather than trying to ride the wave of a brief fad.
This strategy is paying dividends as MLS added nine teams and 12 soccer-specific stadiums since its 2001 contraction. The 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals drew larger T.V. audiences than Major League Baseball's World Series from the same year.
Youth soccer is often held up as the best evidence of soccer's potential in the U.S. While youth baseball's numbers continue to decline, youth soccer's numbers continue to rise. Only basketball has more youth players than soccer. Soccer participation in high school has more than doubled.
Now that a successful foundation-building strategy is in place, the discussion can turn to how, or even if soccer can take the next step up the hierarchy of American sports.
Two caveats are necessary before we begin to examine this question. First, among women soccer is already a preferred sport and attracts some of the best female athletes in America. The success of our women's national team is a testament to that fact.
So this question is really about men's participation in sports and that is what we will focus on.
A second caveat is that this discussion isn't new. Several well-worn tropes about soccer's image and its incompatibility with American culture bear some kernels of truth. We'll include some of these but hopefully acquire a little more insight into why these issues persist and what the future might bring.