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Soccer has (sort of) arrived in America

The US embraced the World Cup, but what happens in the 4 years until the next one?

US soccer fans
Fans blow horns and wave American flags during the U.S. national soccer team's open training session at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria on June 6, 2010. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

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.