From pariah to contender -- America is no longer reviled in the soccer world, but we are still chasing complete acceptance, and the 2010 World Cup will decide the future of soccer in America and the country's standing among the world's soccer nations.
Significant strides have been made in recent years: America's male soccer players are no longer subject to regular derision by the world's soccer powers; Team USA advanced to the quarter final in the 2002 World Cup, defeated only by future finalist and soccer powerhouse Germany; and perhaps best of all, our national squad surprised everyone in 2009 by defeating the world's number one Spain and falling to mighty Brazil in the Confederations Cup final after leading 2 - 0 at halftime. But this momentum means little, because in the global and the American arena of the soccer world, it is only the World Cup that really matters.
So, here we are at a critical juncture for the future of soccer in America and the game's broader cultural significance beyond its currently well-established place of being an appreciated recreational activity for millions of youngsters. Much will depend on the American players' ability to advance deep in the world's most watched sports event (2 billion people watched the final game in 2006). Success at the World Cup will capture the imagination of soccer fans and thus enhance the American game's legitimacy both here and abroad.
Attaining this will have a number of beneficial implications each of which would be important by itself. But as a package, the long-term results of such a positive outcome might truly become a game changer on many an important level of quotidian lives.
First, there would develop a much greater interdependence between the current state of soccer in America which consists of its being a prolific physical activity for millions of youngsters and a continued marginal interest in the game by the general public. The two have to emerge symbiotically for any sport's meaningful cultural presence in any society.
Second, by having soccer's cultural salience grow in the United States, Americans would become fluent soccer speakers as it were, thus sharing a global language that much of the rest of the world has come to master. In our growing interdependent world, fluency in such a globally dominant means of communication has led to a marked cultural openness and cosmopolitanism in which Americans deserve to participate more vigorously. Being fully conversant with soccer by furnishing one of its successful representatives, the United States would enter yet another arena in which the exigencies of our globalization will undoubtedly increase over the next few decades.
While "speaking soccer" on a daily basis and boasting some of its finest practitioners in the world will not in and of itself make America's role in this globalized world any easier and less contested, it surely would not be to the country's detriment in any way tying it to an international order that has become completely irreversible.
This article is coauthored with Lars Rensman who is also coauthor of our new book Gaming the World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture (Princeton University Press) .