Forum Spin Doctor
AP Sports Columnist
Watch out Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Brazil. Even England, the hallowed home of soccer, should beware. The Americans are coming after your stars again. Not content to be masters of the NFL version of football, it won't be long before the Yanks take over yours, too.
OK, that's a stretch. But say the United States does hire Juergen Klinsmann as its national team coach. And say Ronaldo and David Beckham do move to Major League Soccer in the next year or two. That's some serious star power - not to mention giving the United States some heavyweight attention in the only game that matters everywhere else.
By all rights, the United States should be a dominant force in soccer. According to Major League Soccer, 65 million people in the United States consider themselves fans. A whopping 18 million of them play the game. That's more than the entire populations of 15 countries at last summer's World Cup.
Now, the majority of those players aren't world class - far from it. But in a country this size, with that many people playing, the talent pool for the U.S. team should be several thousand, at least. Not even close.
The United States may as well be Switzerland, given the lack of elite players. Too often, teenagers who could be game-changers look at opportunities in soccer - educationally, economically and athletically - and, not surprisingly, hang up their boots.
To be a powerhouse, soccer in the United States needs to be as ultracool with the junior high set as basketball and football. And that won't happen until some international superstars bring some street cred to this side of the Atlantic - which is where Klinsmann, Beckham and Ronaldo come in.
Klinsmann is considered the favorite to replace Bruce Arena as national team coach. He's proven he's up for the job, leading a young Germany squad to a surprising third-place finish at the World Cup.
He's also young, intelligent and good-looking, someone who should be able to generate some interest among folks who don't know a corner kick from a bicycle kick.
"I've lived in this country for eight years now, so I've followed soccer development in the United States," he told The Associated Press last week. "The player-development aspect is a huge aspect."
The talent level in MLS has improved tremendously since the league began a decade ago, and the average attendance of 15,504 this year was up 2.6 percent. But professional soccer in the United States is still the JV compared to the top leagues in England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy.
To be considered among the elite, the Americans need a league that's competitive at every spot on the field and compelling off it. When MLS conference championships are played Sunday, it's a good bet a lot more people will be watching the NFL.
Beckham and Ronaldo are past their prime, no question. Beckham was dumped from the England squad in the biggest breakup since Brad and Jen, and he and Ronaldo have been reduced to high-priced subs at Real Madrid.
But they're still better than most of those in MLS, not to mention gossip-column items in the making. Beckham isn't even here, and he's tabloid fodder. Or at least his wife, aka Katie Holmes' new best friend, is. Put him in Los Angeles and Ronaldo in New York, and watch interest in the league jump.
More fans means more revenue. More revenue means more money for big-name players. More big-name players means better competition on the field. Better competition on the field means stronger American players.
And that eventually makes for a stronger national team - one that would have a legitimate shot at winning a World Cup.
"We have a bunch of talented young players and, in some cases, more talented than ever before. However, they're very inexperienced at this level," Arena said after the Americans were eliminated in Germany.
"We've got to do a better job in trying to develop our elite players earlier."
The United States had this kind of opportunity once before, and blew it. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best helped make the North American Soccer League a household name, but there weren't enough fans around to support it. Now there are.
Bring in Klinsmann, Beckham and Ronaldo to inject some pizazz, and America could be a football powerhouse. And we're not just talking NFL.