Most soccer fans today accept the idea that the world's most popular
sport will continue to grow in the U.S.—albeit slowly—and that the
game's rise is supported by increased TV coverage, rising quality of
 MLS teams, and fan education and awareness that takes place during
spectacles such as the World Cup.


But there's another reason: high school.
       

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the U.S. temporarily went soccer crazy and the now-defunct North American Soccer League purchased Pele's star power to try and create instant fans, the game became immensely popular among white, middle-and upper-class kids.
They joined private soccer clubs by the millions, prompting many to
believe that soccer would soon be America's most popular sport.


Of course, it didn't. We all know that. The kids who played soccer for fun grew up and became fans of "real" American sports. There are some obvious reasons why. For example, there wasn't enough history of
soccer in the U.S. to create a narrative of the sport, the way we talk
about baseball and summertime, or football and grit. Soccer was also a
sport that kids played only as an organized activity, which limited creativity and, frankly, limited fun.


But also, soccer was an activity not widely available in the most
democratic of our sports organizing bodies: high school. In 1969, for
example, just over 2,200 high schools in the country fielded a soccer
team. Almost 14,000 high schools had a football team. Back then,
soccer was available only to the people who had the time and money to join a private club.

Today, about 14,000 high schools still have a football team. Baseball
and basketball produce similar numbers—almost all high schools had
teams in the big three sports in 1970 and almost all high schools still have teams in the big three sports. And soccer is joining them.
Today, just over 11,000 high schools have soccer teams. That means that soccer is (finally) no longer just the domain of white, middle-and upper-class youth. When sports are accessible through 
public schools, everybody can play.


One of the reasons why soccer has spread throughout high schools so
quickly is because Hispanic immigrants and their children request it.
And while an increasing number of Americans have learned to enjoy
soccer, the reason games are now broadcast on ESPN, while hockey games are not, is because soccer fans, most of them immigrants and the children of immigrants, have an increasing amount of money to spend on advertisers’ products. As an audience, soccer fans have rising clout.
This makes soccer's place in American culture quite different than it
was 30 years ago. In Woodburn, Oregon, for example, a high school with
a 70 percent Latino population, soccer is by far the school's best
sport. The football team is so bad that it recently went two years without winning a game.


And it's not just Hispanics who play in high schools. As increasing
numbers of Hispanic kids create more high school soccer teams, they influence the sport choices of their white, black, and asian peers.
Not only do we have an increasing Hispanic population that influences
which sports are available on television, the passion that many young Latinos have for soccer is rubbing off on the non-Latino kids they go
to school with. If one of the problems soccer in America has had is the lack of street games, informal play, and a narrative of the sport as a masculine activity, the melting pot of public high schools is providing a solution.


Soccer is not going to replace football, baseball, or basketball anytime soon. But based on cable viewership and game attendance, it may have already surpassed hockey as the fourth most popular American
sport, and as the effects of Hispanic immigration continue to spread,
so will soccer's popularity. Most Americans today don't care about soccer because it's too foreign. But Americans are changing, and so is
their view of futbol, er, soccer.