Like many of you, I spent my Tuesday evening surrounded by sadness yet a sense of pride as I watched the US Men’s National Team lose to Belgium 2-1 in extra time. Even Tim Howard’s valiant effort with a World Cup record 16 saves, and one of the most intricate free kick routines you will ever see couldn’t secure a goal to force the Yanks into penalty kicks vs the Red Devils. There was one thing I did notice however: This team gained a far more devout following this World Cup than they had four years ago. It took all of thirty five seconds, and Clint Dempsey scored a goal that set the nation ablaze with red hot passion for this team. In a span of 16 days, much of this nation fell in love with the USMNT. Of course, in all likelihood many of the people gathering at pubs and other locations for watch parties will return to not watching that much soccer, however, the fundamental difference is this is a team that people wanted to watch and cheer for. A team that so many had written off before the tournament, especially after dropping Landon Donovan from the 23 man squad. This was a team that epitomized the American spirit that made this country great. With recognizable names like Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, new hair icons Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, and the leader of the motley crew, Tim Howard, there was someone for everyone to like. The first game against Ghana was a 2-1 win was redemption after the Black Stars had knocked the U.S out of the last two World Cups. Granted, the results only got worse as the tournament went on, but a run to the last 16 in a tournament where the eight squads that remain not only won their groups, but feature 6 of the best teams (Germany, France, Colombia, Brazil, Netherlands and Argentina) on the planet is impressive in it’s own right. This isn’t to serve as a plea to force people to watch soccer or adopt a team abroad or even attend an MLS game (I certainly have yet to). This is more focused on the idea that every World Cup can serve as a benchmark for the growth of soccer in America, and I would certainly say it has grown a lot since the 2010 World Cup.
What helped make this last two weeks great were the support of the fans and the all encompassing efforts of the media in addition to the team that the U.S fielded
The Voices of #IBelieve
ESPN ramped up their coverage this year (compared to South Africa in 2010) considering it will be their last World Cup (FOX takes over next year with the 2015 Women’s World Cup and holds the rights through the 2022 FIFA World Cup). Four years ago, even ESPN itself didn’t focus all that much on soccer, club or international, but this year, not only have the games been great, the pregame, and post game, especially World Cup Tonight with the breakout stars the Men in Blazers, have been delightful and only added thought provoking analyses. ESPN also went all out getting former international stars like Ruud Van Nistelrooy (Netherlands) Michael Ballack (Germany) and Gilberto Silva (Brazil) to join as analysts. For the fans, one of the more impressive things I noticed this cup is how patriotism can overrule sport. Throughout watching the four games at two different pubs, I noticed friends of mine who could not even remotely be bothered about soccer outside the World Cup, were giddy at the prospect of watching the game with other USA fans. Not only were they intrigued, but they firmly entrenched themselves with the cheers and chants that broke out (mostly American Outlaws chants). Not only was it great to see, but it felt like in a society where people debate and disagree so often, everyone put that aside for ninety minutes to support our Yanks in Brazil.
When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011 and even to this day, some of the more skittish (and uninformed) soccer fans were wary of the German legend taking over the American team. This only continued when he decided to axe 2010 World Cup hero Landon Donovan from the side and bring along younger players like DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Julian Green. In hindsight, his decision played dividends as Yedlin was an explosive presence off the bench and both Brooks and Green each netted a goal during the tournament, Brooks’ being a game winner and Green’s providing one final spark against Belgium. All credit is due to the team’s savvy tactician and technical director, he did his best to make chicken salad from chicken ****. While the USA were exposed to be lacking the proper technically skilled players to succeed, the team adapted and did what they could against some of the world’s best teams. They played hard and held their own, as the team never trailed by more than one goal at any point. The best part is looking forward to the 2018 World Cup (yes, I know it’s a full four years away) is the USMNT under Jurgen Klinsmann has some of the most promising youth players it has ever had. Not only this, but some of these players are currently contracted to big European clubs like Arsenal and Bayern Munich. The starting lineup for 2018 (if all these players continue to grow, develop, etc) is looking as follows
* denotes player was at the 2014 World Cup, (current club team and country) – age in 2018
GK – Brad Guzan* (Aston Villa – English Premier League) – age 33
RB – DeAndre Yedlin* (Seattle Sounders – MLS) – age 24
CB – Omar Gonzalez* (LA Galaxy – MLS) – age 29
CB – Matt Besler* (Sporting KC – MLS) – age 31
LB – Fabian Johnson* (Borussia Monchengladbach – German Bundesliga)
RCM – Geoff Cameron* (Stoke City – EPL) – age 33
CM – Michael Bradley* (Toronto FC – MLS) – age 30
LCM – Mix Diskerud* (Rosenborg BK – Norway) age 28
RW – Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal – EPL) age 21
ST – Aron Johansson* (AZ – Dutch Eresdivise) – age 27
LW – Julian Green* (Bayern Munich – Bundesliga) – age 23
The above lineup may seem confusing to some, but in reality, that is the mix of ages and types of players needed to make a deep run into the FIFA World Cup. More importantly, 10 of those 11 players were at the World Cup in Brazil, prior experience can play a big role on the world’s greatest stage. Now of course this is speculative and tentative, but if the younger players develop as they should, this will be a team to be reckoned with in Russia.
With the World Cup over, it doesn’t mean you have to stop watching soccer! There are 3 fantastical ways that YOU, yes YOU! Can help soccer continue to gain a foothold in this great nation of ours.
1. If you know it already, don’t be elitist about it.
The New York Times style section (which makes for great toilet paper if you are short) wrote an editorial about how soccer was the new sport of the thinking class with it’s European roots and near hipster-esque following. This is load of nonsense, as soccer has working class roots from Britain. However, one thing that is a large problem in America is the elitist culture surrounding some soccer fans. When someone asks a question about the teams playing, or if Clint Dempsey is good, or what The Champions League is, the worst thing a person can do is raise their nose up and say “really, you don’t know?” THAT is what turns people off to soccer in America and will continue to do so. There is no reason or need for that level of attitude surrounding the beautiful game, that only will hurt soccer’s following as opposed to bringing new fans into the fold. The best thing to do is to inform people as much as possible, and yes, it may seem dumb for someone to ask who Clint Dempsey is, but cut them some slack.
2. It’s not replacing football (at least not yet) – It should only add to the fan’s experience
Certain people (read: people who I still don’t know why I’m friends with on Facebook) posted yesterday now that the U.S is out, America will go back to not caring about soccer. Full stop. That is about the most 1950’s, Pleasantville-esque xenophobic sounding viewpoint possible. Now it is true that some people will stop paying attention to the tournament, but lest we forget, the World Cup Final is the most watched sporting event on the planet, with an estimated 3.6 billion viewers expected to tune into the final on July 13. For the uninitiated, the best part about watching European soccer specifically is you can do so without spending a whole afternoon. – Premier League games air at 8 am and 10 am on Saturday/Sunday mornings and then the rest of your day is free, especially during the fall, to watch college or professional football. However, it is worth pointing out that with the current concussion crisis sweeping football at all age levels, the sport will not be the same as its current incarnation 40 years from now. Eventually, if current trajectories hold, we are facing a reality where by 2114, football will cease to exist, but in all likelihood, soccer will carry on. Current youth developments are showing this as more parents are keeping their kids away from Football and having them play soccer in the fall instead. With that, why not add one more sport to your plate? There’s no commercials, it wraps up in two hours, and it is genuinely exciting, even if there is no score (yesterday’s game being a brilliant example of that)
3. We don’t have to be European about it
In so many of the reports I have read about and seen, you know whose fans are having the most fun in Brazil? The Americans. European fans have been impressed about the wily antics of team USA fans in Rio De Janiero, Sao Paolo, and all over Brazil. This is where American Exceptionalism (read: why America is so different from everywhere else) comes into play. We are a country that is considered to be so backwards from the rest of the world at times, and that is what makes us great. Why not hold true with that for soccer? Last I checked, it was the American Outlaws organizing chants to a Wu Tang Clan song for the game vs Panama last year. It’s that same group that helps fill stadiums like University of Phoenix and CenturyLink Field with over 65,000 fans to watch this team qualify for the World Cup. More than anywhere, the United States is the country where people self-identify as being American first over their religion, over their job, over almost anything else. I saw this patriotism fly to levels of Bruce Springsteen and Kid Rock levels during the watch parties for the USMNT’s four games. If MLS can continue to build fan bases and continue to increase their quality of play, there could be a 30 team soccer league in these very United States with ravenous, almost college football like allegiances. The best thing the United States can do is NOT emulate European fandom with ultras, but treat watching soccer how we treat watching football, where the pomp and circumstance the crowd provides is just as big as the game itself.
You may think that the 1900 or so words are blathering from some kid who is overly infatuated with the beautiful game and is currently drunk on World Cup fever. That is true, but I have held soccer near and dear to my heart ever since I played it as a kid until my knees gave out. From not only my, but many others perspectives, this has been one of the best World Cups to watch in decades. There is excitement, and a genuine unpredictability about who will actually take the final. My advice: keep watching, adopt a second team for fun, and really get into the game the rest of the world is so crazy about, you wont regret it.