For my much of my 33 1/2 years on this earth I’ve heard some variant of this phrase – usually it grows louder every four years. You’ve probably read (or hate-read) hundreds of columns over the years about why Americans will finally/will never embrace soccer. In the year 2014, these screeds seem about as necessary as Limp Bizkit reunion tour, but that’s a story for another day.
For me, the talk of soccer’s “arrival” in America began with quiet whispers from my father when he coached our elementary school rec soccer team. Those whispers grew louder in 1994 when soccer-hating America hosted the World Cup and continued to snowball with the launch of MLS in 1996. The disastrous 1998 World Cup by Steve Sampson’s team stalled the moment before Bruce Arena recaptured it in 2002.
The build-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany was relentless, fueled by the misguided theory that because Arena’s team in 2002 reached the quarterfinals, America was on the verge of global soccer domination along with the burgeoning, convenient access to European club soccer via cable. I still have the New York Times special sports-only magazine section (Play, I think it was called) with Ronaldinho on the cover tucked away in my cardboard boxes filled with random sports junk, touting how soccer was about to take over in the States. Critical mass came (briefly) four years later given the sea-to-shining-sea reactions by Americans over Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria.
We’ve almost hit the point of mass-saturation. All the crazy videos of people going nuts over John Brooks goal vs. Ghana Monday night, now feels like it’s the expectation afterward.
Either way, from a far less cynical view, the U.S.-Ghana game delivered on almost all fronts. It was compelling sports drama, for one, as the U.S. tried to cling to its 1-0 lead after 30 seconds, as the minutes ticked toward 90 in agonizingly slow fashion. Fans got their moment of patriotic, U-S-A! release on the Brooks’ shock goal after the Andre Ayew sucker punch.
And yes, a lot of fans inside soccer-hating America watched.
Maybe it was the first soccer game of 2014 many people watched, but they tuned in. A result like that leaves an impression on a neutral, casual or undecided fan. A game like that might not turn everyone into soccer-loving lunatics who wake up early on Saturdays to watch the Premier League or those who arrange their schedule around a mid-week Copa Libertadores matches or get “MUFC” tattooed inside their lower lips, but it’s safe to say there are a lot more American fans of the World Cup on Tuesday than there were this time yesterday.
As we’ve seen in the past the United States has an unfortunate track record of turning momentous, potential fan-building results into soul-crushing defeats in the blink of an eye. A reason to be cautiously optimistic for Sunday’s U.S. game with Portugal? Following wins at the World Cup, the United States is a miserable 0-3-1 overall.
Let’s start with 1994. The U.S. advanced out the group on home soil, despite a 1-1-1 record and third place finish in Group A. (That was the final World Cup where third place teams advanced. In 1998 the field expanded from 24 to 32.) After beating Colombia via Andres Escobar’s tragic own-goal, the U.S. lost to Romania. A win would have won the group, instead it meant third place and a game with Brazil.
In the knockout rounds, it put up a fight but lost to the eventual champions 1-0, a game remembered in America for Leonardo’s skull-cracking elbow on Tab Ramos that resulted in a red card.
Perhaps the team won over some fans – remember this is the first time many Americans paid attention to soccer since the days of the NASL in the late 70s – by playing “hard” and “only” losing to eventual tournament champions 1-0. Numbers-wise the match garnered a 9.3 rating on ABC, as 84,000 watched at Stanford Stadium.
Whatever goodwill the scraggy-haired, denim-kitted 1994 team did was quickly offset by the 1998 0-3-0 fiasco in France.
Jumping ahead to 2002 is a curious case. Expectations were about as low for the United States going into the tournament as critics lining up to see Michael Bay’s latest Transformers movie. MLS’ marketing branch — SUM — paid $40 million for the rights and had to convince ESPN to air the tournament. It’s a good thing they did since Jack “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Edward’s fortnight in South Korea/Japan produced some of the most amazing/absurd moments in American broadcasting history, starting with the United State’s shock 3-2 win over Portugal in the opener.
How much of a groundswell the 2002 quarterfinals run created is hard to gauge. Yes, the U.S. shocked everyone beating Portugal 3-2 in the opener, but followed it up with a draw to South Korea and then a 3-1 loss to Poland. The team still advanced with four points, thanks in no small part to a pair of Brad Friedel penalty kick saves in the group stage. (And a vital Park Ji-Sung goal vs. Portugal.)
The 2002 games were in the middle of the night in America – the 1-1 draw vs. South Korea drew 1.36 million viewers on ESPN2 kicking off at 2:30 a.m. If anything, it sowed the seeds for the build-up to 2006. We even got the prototype for the very popular Men in Blazers media phenomenon in the form of Michael Davies excellent travel diary on ESPN’s Page 2.
Of course, for the purposes of this post the U.S. followed up its best-ever World Cup result — the Dos a Cero Round of 16 match with Mexico — losing to Germany 1-0 in a game that featured a dubious non-call of a Torsten Frings handball on the line.
Even so, when 2006 rolled around the hype was huge … and the United States immediately laid an egg against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, going down 1-0 inside of five minutes on a Jan Koller header. The US lost, 3-0.
In a testament to the team’s continual fighting spirit, it did rally for a spirited 1-1 draw with eventual tournament winners Italy in Kaiserslautern days later. Ghana’s win over the Czech’s earlier in the day gave the American fans inside the Fritz-Walter-Stadion hope. There was a sea of red-clad fans behind one of the goals and the sound bounced off the back of the enclosed stadium. The quieter, more reserved Italian fans were stunned. Looking back, the atmosphere feels quaint compared to the raucous party created by groups like the American Outlaws nowadays, but some seeds for that were planted in southwestern Germany, seeds that have grown into 20,000 traveling Yanks attending the Ghana match in Natal, Brazil on Monday.
Anyways, U.S. fans were buoyant after the 1-1 draw with Italy since it meant the team controlled its own a fate. A win vs. Ghana and the U.S. was through. Naturally, the team disappointed with a 2-1 loss, in a game that changed on Markus Merk’s penalty call on Oguchi Onyewu right before the half. The good vibes lasted barely five days.
The U.S. and its newly won over fans only got four days to relish the shock 2-0 win over Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup before it lost to Brazil in a strange final, which saw Bob Bradley’s team cough up a 2-0 halftime lead. Although it wasn’t a World Cup, about four million tuned in on ESPN to watch the game on a Sunday afternoon.
All the good vibes from Landon Donovan’s goal? People were probably still uploading their reaction to YouTube by the time 19.1 million people watched Ghana eliminate the U.S. three days later on June 26.
And here we are, days away from the U.S. facing Portugal in Manaus. A win by Jurgen Klinsmann’s team all but clinches a spot in the Round of 16. Given the public out-pouring of emotion the Ghana win on Monday triggered, coupled with a 6 p.m. (Eastern) kickoff on a weekend, figure ESPN is in line for a gigantic television rating. Will, once again, the USMNT follow-up a huge, goodwill-garnering, fan-winning game with another dud, slowing the momentum?
The big difference here in 2014 is the U.S. finally achieved a “lightning strikes” moment in its first group game (and it did not come in the dead of the American night) meaning a loss to Portugal doesn’t put a halt to the good vibes and crash the bandwagon before it again has time to fill up. There’s still a very good chance Cristiano Ronaldo could shred the U.S. defense, but the wave of pro-U.S. Soccer emotions won’t be over as abruptly as it has been by previous false dawns, disappearing for another long four-year winter.