It's world's 'beautiful game' except for here in the U.S.

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Clint Mathis. Kasey Keller. Brad Friedel. Landon Donovan. Cobi Jones. After the 3-2 defeat of Portugal by the U.S., they're all household names, correct? And a weary nation is staggering to work, bleary-eyed, having watched the 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. TV matches. In your dreams, FIFA. And in your dreams, Phillip Anschutz.

FIFA is the governing body of world soccer. Anschutz, one of America's richest men (he bankrolls the Los Angeles Lakers pro basketball team), is also the backer of six of the 10 Major League Soccer franchises in the U.S.

Are the members of the U.S. soccer team, listed above, as well known as Shaq and Kobe by this, the third week of the soccer World Cup? Of course not. And, in this case, there is no Brandi Chastain to take off her top as she did in the women's World Cup, thus revolutionizing the game. This gives rise to a heartfelt question (one also asked by The New York Times recently): Why does soccer matter everywhere but in the U.S.? It's a puzzle, not the least because some 15 million Americans, mostly young, play the sport .

The game's stature here can be measured by the fact that the U.S. is the only country in the world where the women's soccer team is better known than the men's. It is also the only nation to have qualified for the men's World Cup that is not following its team's progress feverishly.

The very well staged 1994 World Cup here was supposed to kick-start the game's popularity. But, although yet more children took up the sport at a grass-roots level, it has still failed to crack the big time. The MLS, established here after the '94 World Cup, risks going the same way as the ill-fated North American Soccer League. MLS has bled some $250 million in its first six years, and the league has contracted to 10 teams from 12.

What happens between all those children loving the simplicity of what Pele, the Michael Jordan of soccer, christened "the beautiful game" and the onset of the adult addiction to the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL?

Many MLS teams struggle to average 15,000 attendees a game. Despite being a great TV sport (arguably the best), no major U.S. TV network will stick its neck out for soccer. True, this World Cup is available on Disney's ESPN2 and, occasionally, on Disney's ABC. But this is because Anschutz and other investors took the initiative in securing the rights and then dealing with the networks. Although the tournament has generated coverage, its early morning telecasts meant it was never going to make a big enough difference. There is not the avalanche of World Cup-related ad campaigns seen in virtually every other country on the planet right now.

There are many different theories about why soccer doesn't score in the U.S., starting with its potential for un-American "tied" games. Most come back to the U.S. not being the best at the sport. I don't buy that. There is no reason why the U.S. might not eventually produce a tournament-winning team. What's really needed is someone with courage and vision who is prepared to gamble on marketing the game through TV to a nation that loves it when young and forgets about it growing up. The rewards, given the changing demographic of the U.S., could be huge.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity magazines.

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