Sidelines: Soccer growing, but still hasn't found its niche in American sports

Maybe I don't hang out with the right people in the right places.

The last few weeks, every time I turn on a national TV news show, I hear how soccer fever has swept the United States based on how well the men's national team has done in the World Cup.

“Everyone is talking about soccer," CBS This Morning news co-anchor Norah O'Donnell reported recently.

Except for a few in the newsroom, I don't know anyone who is really caught up in the World Cup. Most I know are lukewarm at best. Are people really that excited, or is it just an excuse for a giant summer party?

For the last 40 years, I’ve been hearing how soccer is going to take over the U.S., and there is proof the sport is growing. Try getting into Sycamore Park on a Saturday morning when the AYSO is playing. I also see kids kicking a soccer ball around in their front lawns where once they would have played catch.

There's also proof we're getting better locally. In 2004, the Sycamore High School boys soccer team took second in the state; in 2009, the SHS girls were fourth. In the past two years, the Hinckley and Genoa boys teams were third and fourth, respectively. Success normally breeds interest, which breeds participation, which breeds passion.

Nationally, the U.S. women's soccer team has been even better. Besides winning the first Women's World Cup in 1991, the team has won four of the last five Olympics, and is ranked No. 1 in the world by the Federation Internationale de Football Association. They've reached that pinnacle where you just expect them to win, and wonder what's wrong when they don't.

Yet, it's not likely the world's most popular sport is going to threaten the Super Bowl in this country any time soon. I've probably heard more radio commentators mocking the sport than praising it.

Still, I like soccer. I wish I would have had soccer when I was growing up, because I would have loved to have played it. Soccer is, as Pele once famously called it, "the beautiful game," full of skill and grace.

What U.S. soccer really needs is a bona fide, homegrown poster boy or girl (I still think soccer might be a bigger sport for women than men), not a transplant from Germany or Argentina. More than simply a great player, it has to be a larger than life figure – a Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, or Michael Jordan to stir our passions and imaginations. It has to be someone whose name is known by everyone, not just those who follow the sport.

For a while, I thought it might be Mia Hamm. She had it all: looks, intelligence, success. When she retired in 2004, Hamm had scored more international goals than anyone in history, men or women. She was also the recipient of the women's FIFA World Player of the Year the first two years it was given out.

While I'm sure she inspired countless little girls, Hamm didn't quite infiltrate that bastion of hard-core male sports fans, like me, bred on baseball, football and basketball. Since we didn't grow up playing soccer, we don't understand its subtleties, or have enduring childhood memories of it. We may respect soccer, we just don't love it.

Not yet, anyway.

Realistically, soccer is still a few generations away from finding its true niche here. When it does, this is a big country, and there's room for many different sports. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 says: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens."

As overhyped as soccer has become in the national media, I still prefer listening to pundits discussing it than whether Hillary Clinton, another larger-than-life figure, is going to run for president.

(She is.)

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