The U.S. entered the 2014 World Cup as the weakest team in the perceived “Group of Death.” Two matches later, the U.S. is anything but dead. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team has four points from two matches. Far from being gobsmacked and impressed, fans are irritated we don’t have six. How dare we draw Portugal 2-2, after perhaps the world’s best player pulled a 95th minute goal out of his ass? Many are depressed the U.S. chances of advancement are estimated to be a mere 76 percent heading into the final round of games. This perception shift has been massive.
Travel back a few years. 2009 was considered the “Summer of U.S. Soccer.” The U.S. did beat Spain 2-0 at the Confederations Cup to reach the final. But they also were blown out by Italy and Brazil at the same tournament, blew a 2-0 lead in the final, lost the Gold Cup Final 5-0 to Mexico and lost two of three World Cup qualifiers. U.S. Soccer billed scoring a goal in a loss to Mexico as a historic accomplishment.
The U.S. 2010 World Cup team needed a goalkeeping gaffe and a desperate, final minute goal to advance from a benign group headlined by England. Defensive lapses cost them against a beatable Ghana in the Round of 16, closing the door on an attainable route to the semifinal. That team was celebrated when it returned home.
How would those summers play out in 2014? That seems like a different world.
We discuss the U.S. becoming a “soccer nation” or “making it.” We define this achievement through television ratings (the World Cup and MLS must topple the hierarchy of American sports) or unreasonable on-field success (the U.S. must find the American Ronaldo Messi and win a World Cup). Spoiler: neither of those things is likely to happen soon.
The truth is soccer has already “made it” in the United States. The World Cup is a major event. The Champions League and the EPL are programming fixtures for major sports networks. MLS is stable, a target for investment and one of the world’s best attended leagues.
The best testament for America’s burgeoning soccer nationdom: no more excuses. The Portugal aftermath has shown there’s no short track. There’s no fawning over flattering failure. We expect the USMNT to play well. We kvetch and nitpick when they don’t. A result against Germany on Thursday would be…points needed to advance.
Many sports fans care about the U.S. team in Brazil. Those that don’t have adopted the behavior of an embattled minority. Rooting for the U.S. team has become as fraught and cynical as rooting for any other team. Perhaps more so. That is the sign you have become a “soccer nation.”