After an exciting World Cup rolled up record TV ratings, Sports Illustrated declared that soccer, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward the United States:
"American soccer now has its greatest opportunity. If those who control this burgeoning game in the U.S. have the good sense and the enlightened self-interest to discipline themselves and to take a decent posture toward soccer, we may yet have a shot at international recognition in a game that, thanks to an accident in sporting history, passed us by."
The only catch: Those lines appeared in Sports Illustrated in March 1967. The two new professional leagues the magazine ballyhooed -- surely you remember the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association -- were stillborn a month later. Certainly they still loom large in the memories of TV cameramen, who every week had to come up with breathtakingly acute new camera angles to disguise the vast expanse of empty seats at the games. If you're one of the 870 fans who attended the match between the Chicago Spurs and the Los Angeles Toros in Chicago's 61,500-seat Soldier Field in June 1967, bring your ticket stub to me and I'll buy you an ice-cream cone.
If Sports Illustrated was the first to sample the soccer Kool-Aid, plenty of others have guzzled from the same pitcher over the last four decades. As the joke goes, soccer is America's sport of the future -- and always will be.
From carny hucksters trying to make a quick buck selling franchises to earnest assistant professors who are morally certain that world peace would be achieved if only Americans could be made to appreciate the intricacies of the corner kick, we've been endlessly bombarded with predictions that any day now we'll feel the sudden urge to throw away our baseball gloves and football pads to chant our new allegiance to the scoreless ties and incomprehensible offsides calls that make soccer so enthralling. My personal favorite came from a Baltimore sportscaster named Charley Eckman, who once said, "Indoor soccer will be the game of the '80s. Bet your cherries on it." And you wonder why you never see cherry orchards in Baltimore.
Here's the cold blunt fact of the matter: Americans hate soccer, and we've been hating it for a century and a half. The British brought the game when they settled their American colonies, and we played it for a while ... and then, like their damn tea, we threw it overboard. Soccer's precipitous decline in the United States came in the 1870s and 1880s, when three made-in-America sports -- baseball, basketball and football (real football, the kind played with helmets and massive doses of steroids) -- surged in popularity.
Soccerphiles have been trying to reverse the trend ever since. Every decade or so, a new swarm of pro soccer leagues hatches like pestiferous insects, only to be crushed to a bloody pulp by the heavy hand of American indifference, unmourned except by fans of unspeakably weird team names. (The Lone Star Soccer Alliance's San Antonio XLR8 is widely considered the champion by this audience, though my own preference is the Ohio Xoggz of the Southwest Independent Soccer League.)
With so much practice at discerning hope in the face of impending oblivion, soccer fans are the world's most skillful self-deceivers. Their favorite good omen is increased TV ratings for the World Cup -- and with the Nielsens up 50 percent for this cup, they're giddy with optimism.
But it's easy to boost your ratings 50 percent when you start from next to nothing. The average match has drawn a million or two viewers, and even the most-watched, between the United States and Ghana, had 19.4 million viewers -- about 20 percent fewer than "American Idol" on a bad night.
And most of those viewers were there for the spectacle (and the beer) rather than the soccer. The Coral Gables, Fla., bar where I watched the U.S.-Ghana match was indeed packed -- but a third of the customers walked out when the game went into overtime, the moment at which real soccer fans should have been atingle with anticipation. And let's not start on the guy sitting beside me, who kept asking me which team was which.
A better indication of the ongoing U.S. interest in soccer -- or, more correctly, the lack of it -- is the attendance and TV ratings of Major League Soccer, the latest professional league to bang its head against the American wall. The 17-year-old league claims an average attendance of 16,000 per match -- less even then indoor pro sports like basketball and hockey, and a mere flyspeck compared to Major League baseball (30,000 a game) or NFL football (68,000). And anyway, the key word in the last sentence is claims -- the San Diego Union, a couple of years ago, got hold of internal Major League Soccer documents that showed that the league was giving away twice as many tickets as it was selling.
As for TV ratings, ESPN's coverage of Major League Soccer has fewer viewers than bowling or poker. I bet my cherries it's going to stay that way.