With its 2016 College Cup championship, Stanford University has won an NCAA team title for 41 consecutive school years. (Eric Christian Smith / AP)

Did you watch Stanford beat Wake Forest for its second straight NCAA Men’s College Soccer Championship on Dec. 11? Probably not, unless you were in Houston, because it wasn’t televised on any prime channels. That’s how little collegiate soccer means in this country, even to ESPN and its program-hungry channels.

Besides, nobody in the U.S. talks about soccer unless it’s a World Cup year—which won’t come again until 2018—and then only to ask: “Is the U.S. ever going to win the World Cup? Is soccer ever going to become one of the most popular sports in the U.S.?”

After all, our talent pool is immense, so much so that our women’s team has become a powerhouse in international soccer. Since Title IX was signed into law in 1972, the number of girls playing soccer in high school has grown from around 10,000 in the late 1970s to around 375,000 in 2015, and last year colleges fielded almost 40,000 women on over 1500 teams.

But to change the status of men’s soccer in America would mean changing the entire sports landscape.

Well, can the U.S. ever win the World Cup? Can soccer ever become one of the most popular sports in the U.S.?

For years, soccer enthusiasts have said that if the U.S. were to finally win the Big One, it might vault the game into the league of—or perhaps even ahead of—pro football, baseball and basketball. But that’s not how soccer became supreme in other countries—they didn’t suddenly win the World Cup and then see a surge in soccer interest. For every soccer champion, there were years of painstaking building of teams and leagues before a national squad could be assembled that was good enough to challenge at the World Cup level. (For a brief history, I recommend “National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer” by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist.)

America, of course, has the physical talent to compete with anyone. In the most famous test of national athletic ability, the Summer Olympics, USA is a dominant force. In the 2016 summer games in Rio, we took home 121 medals, 46 gold (the closest competitor in medals was China with 70, and in gold, Great Britain with 27). So we can produce the athletes. We just rarely turn the athletes into soccer players.

Think of the possibilities if some of the great talents in American team sports had turned to soccer when they were young. Jim Brown was the greatest running back in NFL history—and so versatile that he was also an All-American at lacrosse. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he may have been too bulked-up for soccer. But had he chosen soccer instead of American football, he probably would have been a good 20 to 25 pounds lighter.

The most distinguished American soccer player in the last World Cup was goalie Tim Howard, who is 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds. That’s just about the same size as Jerry Rice, who, a couple of years ago, was named the greatest football player of all time in an NFL Films poll. Imagine a goalie with the combination of Rice’s reflexes and incredible hands.

Want to consider Michael Jordan or LeBron James for goalie? I’d like to see them give it a shot. Do you think Willie Mays was the physical equal of Pelé? I don’t see why not. The great Argentine attacking midfielder, Diego Maradona, was listed on rosters at about 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds. That’s pretty much how Joe Morgan measured up, and Morgan was strong enough to hit 400-foot home runs and fast enough to steal hundreds of bases. I’d give him a soccer tryout.

But how can these athletes—especially the ones gifted with great throwing arms and vertical leaps—walk away from established American sports where they can make millions of dollars a year? Major League Soccer’s contract with Fox/ESPN for $600 million over eight years is a step up, but it’s dwarfed by the TV deals with the NFL, NBA and MLB. The MLS deal is even teensy compared to the NHL, which in 2011 inked a 10-year deal with NBC Sports for $200 million a year.

Given those numbers, it’s going to take soccer decades to even approach the popularity of other major sports in this country. Yes, youth soccer has been a major force in America for a while now. But as Jeffrey Toobin put it a few years ago in The New Yorker, “Soccer in the suburbs serves mostly as a bridge between Barney and Nintendo; it’s a pleasant diversion, not a means of developing brutes like Jan Koller [star forward of the Czechoslovakian team] to say nothing of the magicians who stock the Brazilian team.” Or the juggernaut machine the Germans fielded again for the last World Cup, or the artful and kinetic Argentines.

If our goal is to win the World Cup, there might be a better strategy than butting heads with the big guys or obsessing over the bumblebee leagues: Turn the focus onto collegiate soccer.

There are nearly 1,000 men’s college soccer programs in the United States, both Division I and Division II, and nearly 10,000 men playing at those levels. Instead of spending so much time, money and resources creating a pro league and building teams from a multitude of sources, why not focus on an established structure with a huge talent pool?

That’s the way pro football and basketball did it. For decades, the greatest NFL and NBA stars were already household names by the time they left college. It could theoretically be the same with college soccer, which already has a ready-made set of natural rivalries and thus the potential for huge national audiences. Bear Bryant used to say that “Alabama and Auburn fans would show up if the two school played tiddlywinks.” I bet more would show up for soccer.

If soccer really is going to take hold in this country, the NCAA, MLS and the national sports media—meaning all those writers and commentators who say they’ve been won over to soccer—need to hype the collegiate championship. And get it on TV.

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