Soccer has (sort of) arrived in America

BOSTON — The U.S. national soccer team will take the field Tuesday night for the first time since World Cup 2010 in South Africa, and more than 50,000 fans will be at the Meadowlands for the occasion.

That a significant percentage of them will be there because of — and to cheer on — the opponent, Brazil, is of no import. The games that book-ended the World Cup — the sellout sendoff in Philly and now this Brazilian encounter — are ample evidence that soccer has finally arrived in America.

Arrived, at least, in a fashion.

There is no doubt that this country possesses the current of nationalism that can lead it to embrace the U.S. soccer team in major international competitions — especially when it fares well. That has now been demonstrated twice in South Africa, first during last year’s Confederations Cup and, more recently, with record TV ratings for the World Cup.

World Cup fever has clearly been bolstered by the coming of age of a generation that played soccer as kids and, while not necessarily fervent fans, have an innate understanding of the game. They have no reflexive need to debunk the game for what many older American sports fans have long viewed as its shortcomings, most notably the lack of scoring.

Moreover, America loves a pageant and the World Cup came through — in vivid colors and fervent emotions — as an unsurpassed sporting festival. But a sport can’t flourish on a quadrennial event alone. So what happens to soccer in this country now, in the four-year interim until the U.S. team once again takes the field in World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

If the United States were hosting an imminent World Cup, it might be able to hang the future of soccer in America on it. But the 2014 Cup is slated for Brazil and while that will mean prime-time games in this country, it is too distant to stoke any passions here during the interim years.

The United States is bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, both of which will be awarded in December. Hopes for 2018 are almost certainly doomed, as the European soccer establishment will not tolerate three successive Cups on other continents. And while the United States will be a leading contender for 2022 — its huge, already existing venues are a major plus — the prospect of a home Cup a dozen years in the future can only provide the sport here with limited sustenance, at least in the near future.

As a result, Major League Soccer, while relatively stable in its 15th season now, will continue to face the same daunting problems it has from its inception. Its spring-to-fall season still forces MLS to compete against all three major American sports — football, baseball and basketball — as well as with the biggest events of other popular sports like golf, tennis, hockey and NASCAR.

While the American soccer league will certainly benefit from a larger, homegrown talent pool as well as from the fact that more foreign players are willing to ply their trade here, there is a problem that stems from American soccer success. As American talent blossoms, U.S. players have become far more welcome in — and occasionally even courted by — major and minor overseas European leagues.

When the U.S. national team began its run of six successive World Cups back in 1990, the foreign-based American player was a rarity. In more recent World Cups, MLS has contributed a healthy chunk of the U.S. World Cup lineup. But the American team for World Cup 2010 was dominated by foreign-based players. In the wake of the spirited American showing in South Africa, MLS can only point to one Cup star, Landon Donovan, in its own galaxy — and Donovan, if he had his druthers, would be playing in England this season.

The national team should certainly benefit from the schooling its players receive on the tougher, more competitive fields overseas. Donovan, for one, seemed sharper and more confident in South Africa following his successful stint with Everton in the Premier League at the conclusion of the last MLS season. But that leaves MLS with very little that is tangible to showcase out of any World Cup success.

As the American elite find their way abroad, MLS will have to rely on up-and-coming and second-tier American talent to sustain it along with some big-name foreign players, well past their playing prime, to provide the pizzazz. That formula worked when David Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy and, to a lesser extent, with Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco playing for the Chicago Fire. Though Beckham missed most of a season due to injury and was a pale shadow of the player who once captained England, his presence in MLS was a major commercial hit in terms of both attendance and merchandise sales.

The New York Red Bulls just signed French star Thierry Henry and Mexican standout Rafael Marquez, both of whom played most recently for the Spanish juggernaut Barcelona. Henry, who will turn 33 this month, is coming off a succession of down notes: a dismal season with Barca; a goal — off a deliberate handball — that put France in the World Cup, but got Henry labeled unsportsmanlike (and worse); and a French travesty in South Africa, in which Henry did not play a single minute, but was cast as a ringleader of an embarrassing player revolt against the coach.

Still, Henry, who won a World Cup with France and European championships with both Arsenal and Barcelona, is, arguably, the most accomplished player to take the field for an American pro team since Pele and Franz Beckenbauer were taking star turns with the New York Cosmos in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And the 31-year-old Marquez, with 94 caps for Mexico, should certainly help MLS take aim at the Hispanic audience it covets.

So while the national team figures to manage a slow, steady ascent toward a not-too-distant time when this country emerges as an international soccer power of at least the second rank, MLS may not see all that much fallout. Still, even if it doesn’t thrive, it will continue to slog along as an essential ingredient in the American soccer experience and even a valuable addition to the international game.

Tuesday night’s encounter with Brazil may actually be a more important game for the visitors. Though Brazil lasted one round longer than the Yanks in South Africa, Brazilian fans regard the team’s Cup performance as a flop. Disenchantment was compounded by anger that their team had abandoned “the beautiful game” for a more rugged European style. That Spain triumphed with Brazilian flair was the final, bitter irony.

With Brazil hosting the 2014 World Cup, failure and, even worse, ugly failure are not regarded as options. For his debut, Brazil’s new coach Mano Menezes has infused his roster with young talent and promised that the team will reclaim its soccer style and soul on the way back to the top. It will be a long, arduous climb toward 2014.

It is a coup for American soccer here that the critical launch will occur here on our turf.