Belgium 2, USA 1: a milestone loss and World Cup run?
One thing I should have done throughout the World Cup is post Team USA game results and photos, much as I do for Iowa football and men’s basketball. Lord knows I need the posts. (Not really. I’m not getting paid to do this and there is no reason for me to fret about not posting. Why do I do it? I guess I have nothing else to worry about.) But, alas, I was not thinking ahead. Regardless, I will try to remember to do it if I am still blogging in 2018 and thought I would make a habit of it now.
Yes, of course I am bummed that Belgium knocked the US out of the World Cup, but I’ll get over it. It is what it is and there is nothing I can do about it but enjoy a beer, praise the solid effort, and look ahead. There are other things to worry about in the world. (Like my recent dearth of posts!) Thirty-one teams are sent home from the World Cup without any kind of championship hardware. Of course it would have been awesome if the Americans had reached the quarterfinals and points beyond, as they did in 2002. But having seen Team USA’s past World Cup performances — most notably in France ’98 and Germany 2006 — I will gladly take an exit in the Round of 16, especially given the team’s group drawing, extensive travel requirements, and tough matchup against the stacked Belgians.
Every World Cup there is hope the United States will play deep into the tourney and finally establish itself as a soccer powerhouse, generating interest in the sport and national team at the same time. Though the US still has yet to prove itself on the biggest stage (what the hell does the team need to do in order to do that?), I think and hope we’ve finally gotten over the hump in terms of interest with this latest World Cup run.
For years, soccer fans have been a marginalized, lunatic fringe. But the MLS has slowly and surely established itself among the nation’s revered professional sports leagues and interest in soccer continues to grow every year. Back in the late-nineties, ESPN broadcast MLS games played in mostly empty NFL stadiums, and cable renegade Fox Sports World was, I think, the only place to find European league games. Now, MLS teams are packing soccer-specific stadiums and the major networks fight tooth and nail for MLS, English Premier League, and Champions League television rights. (Fox, I learned, has acquired the rights to the 2018 World Cup. I shuttered when I thought of Gus Johnson unleashed at the world’s biggest sporting event.) On the international level, there seems to be more interest with every World Cup. There was more interest in 2010 than in 2006, and 2014 was off the charts. Bars were filled, thousands attended public viewing parties, Nike seemed to have made a killing on sales of Team USA jerseys, and the contingent of American fans was apparently the largest among the foreign supporters in Brazil (except, I imagine, the Argentines). Vengeance against Ghana was a huge boost, and I think interest would have shot through the roof had the Portuguese not grabbed a late equalizer. The game against Germany ended up being a snoozer, but it seemed to do the trick: the US survived the dreaded Group of Death! The whole nation seemed to be watching or aware of the game against Belgium. Though Tim Howard’s herculean effort was for naught, the game seemed to be a monumental moment in US soccer history.
What happens now? I don’t know. Americans like winners and interest wanes when fortunes sour. What happens if the US does not qualify? Does that kill the momentum? The media seems to have teased Americans with the prospect of a linear progression toward world soccer dominance: we qualified in 1990 and it is only a matter of time before Team USA wins a World Cup. But it is definitely not that easy. What happens when World Cups come and go and the US still has not reached the final, still has not raised the Jules Riment Trophy? Does the United States become largely apathetic again? It shouldn’t, but I’m unsure whether or not it would.
Outside of the Olympics, though, American seem mostly indifferent to international sporting competitions — especially, it seems, those we cannot easily dominate. Look at the FIBA World Championships, a World Cup equivalent for basketball. (Interestingly, I just learned it has been renamed the FIBA Basketball World Cup. The 2014 edition will be hosted by Spain and starts August 30.) I think there is a common awareness of the tournament among basketball fans, but the general public is mostly oblivious and unconcerned. And Americans love basketball. The same thing goes for the World Baseball Classic. (There is, I think, more interest in the WBC than the basketball World Cup.)
Will Americans ever fall head-over-heels in love with its national soccer team and be raptly interested in the World Cup? Maybe not. And that’s okay. (Ultimately, it may not be healthy or sane.) Not everybody needs to like soccer. People like my dad may never be interested, may never think of soccer as anything other than boring. And that is perfectly fine. Americans enjoy many different sports. But though it was once marginalized as a sport for little kids (even I played organized soccer when I was a kid), I think soccer now finds itself alongside, though not among, our national pastimes. It may not be for everyone, but it has definitely gotten its hooks into many of us.