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Has American soccer's oft-anticipated future finally arrived? That is the inevitable question that arises every time the World Cup comes around. To date it has not. The American upset of England in the 1950 World Cup, Pele's star turn with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s, and the attendance records set at the staging of the World Cup in this country in 1994 all came and went and the sport's future remained just that.
So far, this year does not appear to be any different, despite the effort to cite Matt Drudge's hyping the controversy over the deafening sounds of the vuvuzelas as evidence that the pulse of the nation is at last throbbing with a passion for the beautiful—but perennially foreign—game. Yes, the U.S. managed to tie England in its opening match, but aside from not equaling the shocker scored by 1950s unlikely heroes, no one ever inspired a sports revolution by tying one for the Gipper. The U.S. avoided humiliation Friday against Slovenia, but don't expect a desperation tie against the smallest nation in the cup (population: 2 million) to spark a breakthrough.
A quick look at the TV ratings does not suggest any dramatic breakthrough over viewership in 1994. Newspaper coverage and highbrow punditry are up, but does that reflect new passion at the grassroots or another expression of the chattering class's discomfort with American exceptionalism? In any event, using coverage in the New York Times, or the New Republic—or even dare I say it, The Atlantic—as a yardstick for the progress of the sport may well be irrelevant.
Any real long-term gains are probably being registered on another front entirely, measured by the projected growth of the country's Hispanic population. Or will assimilation short-circuit that process before soccer gains a place at American sport's top table? Perhaps that will provide the decisive resolution of the ongoing debate about whether the proverbial melting pot will erode the distinctive parameters of Hispanic identity as has happened with earlier waves of immigrants.
How will we know that the soccer future has arrived? A key plot point in The Secret in their Eyes, this year's Academy Award-winning film from Argentina, turns on the police grasping the significance of a suspect's encyclopedic knowledge of the annual rosters of a local professional soccer club. When the same thing can happen in an American film, we will have the answer. If it ever can.