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Most important game in U.S. soccer history

In the wake of the United States men's soccer team's 2-0 victory over Spain in the Confederations Cup semifinals on Wednesday, what passes for America's soccer media had a fine debate over where the win ranked all time. They came in all over the map.

Deferring to someone with greater knowledge on the subject, Sports Illustrated's reliable and reasonable Grant Wahl had it coming in fifth. ("No. 1: USA beats Mexico 2-0 in second round of 2002 World Cup.")

Make no mistake about this, though, if the U.S. can defeat Brazil on Sunday for the Confederations Cup title, it will be the most important moment for soccer in this country ever.

That may not mean the same as its most significant victory. Defeating Mexico in the World Cup en route to a quarterfinals appearance may have meant more in pure soccer terms.

Actually winning a real FIFA tournament, however, and defeating major world powers to do it (Spain had won 15 consecutive matches and even a soccer neophyte knows Brazil is Brazil) would serve notice to Americans that America's team is worth their attention.

There's no better time than with the World Cup looming 11 months from now. A victory would significantly raise expectations and anticipation for next June in South Africa.

I've argued for years that the only way competitive international soccer becomes a major deal in the United States is for our national team to compete, if not win, at the highest level. A World Cup title is, of course, an outrageous goal, but it's about the only one that will catapult the sport.

In most countries, the game is the star. It just isn't here and it's not for lack of trying.

We've had a slew of professional leagues. Promoters brought in Pele in the 1970s and David Beckham recently. There have been national television deals, oversized media coverage and even the hosting of the 1994 World Cup.

It still didn't take soccer beyond hardcore fans, which is a significant sized group, mind you.

There was once a belief that if Americans would just play and understand the game, they'd fall in line with the rest of the world. At this point, though, nearly everyone under the age of 50 has played, often a great deal in the endless youth leagues around the country.

That didn't work, either. Then again, everyone has played table tennis and virtually no one in the U.S. follows its professional circuit – which is actually a big draw in Asia.

This isn't about a lack of exposure or understanding of the sport, although that's what the soccernistas (the elitist, overbearing fan) will tell you. When it comes to building the sport, too often, they are their own worst enemy, more annoying than those horns the fans in South Africa are blowing (and by the way, thanks for the pierced ear drums – can't wait for the month-long World Cup.)

The simple fact is American sports fans want to watch the best and nothing less. And they shouldn't have to apologize for it. We've exported a number of our sports, most notably basketball and baseball, and are used to attracting the finest players to compete for the finest teams.

When we are good at a sport, we'll follow it. If we aren't, we won't. It's in our DNA (just win, baby).

It's why our women's soccer team has been more famous and more beloved than our men. Winning isn't just an organic marketing tool; it's also the most powerful marketing tool.

Which is why Sunday's game against Brazil is so significant. The victory over Spain was inspiring, an underdog effort against a superior talent. The way the Americans didn't cower in the face of a big name was something to celebrate. Both goals were dramatic. The fact that a rivalry has begun with Spain, whom some American players claim were disrespectful in defeat, is an added bonus.

It was a great, attention grabbing day for soccer in America.

Sunday could be even greater.

There are enough fans and enough money and enough athletes in America for soccer to do fine without it becoming a national obsession. It doesn't need to be the NFL for the U.S. to field a decent side and homegrown fans to enjoy it. Television ratings shouldn't dictate individual enjoyment.

And that's good because even if the U.S. won the 2010 World Cup, talk about what team Brett Favre will unretire to this time will still be breathlessly debated next summer. Soccer isn't overtaking football (or basketball or baseball) any time soon.

Major victories would make it a major diversion, though. This isn't the country that will see a passionate fan base lift a team to success. It requires a successful team to create a passionate fan base.

On Sunday, a very big step is there for the taking.