WALLA WALLA - I never thought I'd say this, but it appears that soccer is finally gaining some serious traction in the good old U.S. of A.
However, some of my soccer-loving friends - and others not so friendly - might suggest that I am a tad bit slow on the uptake. They're the ones who have been insisting for the past four decades that soccer is the fastest growing sport in America.
But when interest in anything doubles from 5 percent to 10 percent and then from 10 percent to 15 percent, that particular something doesn't automatically leap to the top of the leader board - or anywhere near it.
Those aren't official figures, by the way, just one person's educated estimation. But you get the idea.
Nevertheless, if I'm correctly reading the temperature here in Walla Walla, the planet's most popular game - there are an estimated 3.5 billion soccer fans worldwide - has gone mainstream. And I base this opinion on a number of observations.
Youth soccer in this valley seems to be as popular as ever, with hundreds of kids participating each fall. Many of them are introduced to the game as soon as they're able to walk.
The recent success of area high school soccer programs has definitely enhanced interest in the sport. Wa-Hi's boys team won its first Big Nine Conference championship in the school's history this spring, and everyone is aware of the success the Mac-Hi teams - the boys three-time state championship teams in particular - have enjoyed for several years running.
Likewise at the collegiate level, soccer has gradually - if not completely - filled the void created when first Whitman College and later Walla Walla Community College dropped their football programs. Whitman's men's and women's soccer teams have experienced moderate success in the Northwest Conference while WWCC's men's and women's programs have emerged as the cream of the crop in the NWAACC, both clubs dominating the Eastern Division and each winning an NWAACC title in the last two years.
Walla Walla's ever-growing Hispanic population has also positively impacted the community's soccer climate. Take a drive around town any Sunday afternoon and you'll discover hotly contested futbol matches at city parks and schools that are the centerpieces for family gatherings.
And now, with the World Cup in full swing, the soccer volume has been turned up even higher as national teams from around the world compete for the sport's moved coveted prize.
As a jogger, I usually listen to ESPN radio on my afternoon sojourns. And ESPN has done its part in promoting soccer with a daily afternoon World Cup show that I have found both entertaining and informative.
I've also made note of the fact that the television set in the YMCA's Men's Center - from whence I begin my jogs - is more often than not tuned to the Fox Soccer Channel or an ESPN2 telecast of a professional soccer match from some far-flung location on the other side of the globe.
But here's proof positive, as far as I'm concerned, that soccer has reached a new level of interest and excitement in the Walla Walla Valley.
Twice in my neighborhood during the playing of U.S. World Cup matches, there have been World Cup parties. Cars crowded around a particular home. Raucous cheers when the Americans were fortunate enough to score a goal.
You'd have thought it was the Super Bowl.
Why, I even caught my wife, Margaret, and my son, Aaron, glued to the TV watching the U.S. team as it fought its way through the preliminary round and into the World Cup's knockout phase, where it was ultimately eliminated by Ghana 2-1 in overtime.
They even invited me to join them. And I tried to watch, I swear I did.
But I couldn't. I had to leave the room. The game still holds no appeal for me.
OK, I didn't have the opportunity to play soccer growing up. I don't understand the nuances of the sport. And I don't appreciate it the way I do baseball, basketball and American football. Or for that matter golf, tennis and track and field. Volleyball, even.
I'm more in line with how a dear old friend of mine, the late Gus Hartzheim, who was for many years the Union-Bulletin's composing room foreman, viewed soccer.
"Watching soccer," Gus would growl, "is like watching two people fish."
Hard core? Absolutely.
But for some of us, nil-nil is just too hard of a sell.
It appears now, however, that we're no longer in the majority. Not even in Walla Walla.