I’ve needed to settle down for awhile after that riveting soccer game that saw Landon Donovan score the game winner in stoppage time before writing this post. I’ve done that, now let me tell why this game (and win) were so important to the popularity of soccer in the U.S.A.
There’s basically three camps in the United States when it comes to soccer.
1. There’s the “soccer sucks and the only way I’m watching is if I’m being tortured” camp.
2. The “I’m not a soccer fan, but I watch the World Cup and I’ll go to an MLS game if I get a ticket” group.
3. The “I have three fantasy league soccer teams with players from the leagues in Brazil, Greece, and Russia” camp.
In the past, the second and third groups have watched the U.S. soccer team with high hopes. The team has been alleged to be good but in reality have flamed out far below expectations. Moreover, there have been plenty of opportunities for the U.S. team to get that signature win which makes Americans take notice. A 1-0 loss to Germany in 2002, A tie to Italy in 2006, and the 2009 Confederation loss to Brazil after leading 2-0. In each case, the fans were told, the team played well but just was unlucky to win. We’ll get ’em next time.
It’s been obvious for years that the only way soccer gets any credibility is to get results and do some damage on Soccer’s biggest stage. This World Cup gave the U.S. the perfect chance. No overinflated expectations as in 2006, when the U.S. was ranked 5th in the world, nor any “just happy to be here” sentiments. Win or failure. An ideal most Americans, even the non-soccer fans, understand.
Then there’s been the way they played so far. See, the only way Americans are gonna watch a sport they normally wouldn’t is if there is drama and excitement. They need riveting theater. This World Cup has given it to them.
First, they come back against England, yes with the help of an atrocious goal, but they came back nonetheless.
Theater. They showed some true “American” grit.
Then they suck against Slovenia, but come back late to score two goals and the winner, only to be screwed by “the call.”
Theater. There was action, drama, and outrage.
Everything led up to the game with Algeria, and the stakes were right where any red blooded American wants them. Back against the wall. Win or die.
For 90 minutes they let the drama simmer. Lost chances? Check. More villainy? Check. The specter of those “unlucky soccer kids who played well but can’t win” hanging in the air? Definitely check. Add to that England’s goal that cemented the “win or die” storyline and you have the perfect set up.
And as the seconds kept ticking away, the tension built and built. We’re talking “will they find the bomb in the schoolyard in time’ tension.
Then….as “official time” ended and all hope was lost, Tim Howard, goalkeeper, saves the day, keeping the ball out of the net and throwing (throwing?) the ball some 60 yards to a streaking Donovan…..
Donovan pass the ball to Altidore…….
Altidore gets the ball in to Dempsey who HAS THE SHOT SAVED!
BUT THE GOALIE CAN’T HOLD IT AND…..
long pause to hold breath.
DONOVAN SCORES!!!!!!!!!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!!!
Bars, offices, schools, my couch, erupted in cheers. The only people not happy were the Hollywood writers who wished they’d thought of this moment for a script.
Even more important was that millions of Americans saw a soccer game, a 1-0 soccer game, that was the total opposite of the “boring, unwatchable tripe” memo that sports talk hosts had been feeding them for years.
Now they understand what the world has known for years. Soccer can be pretty darn exciting.
So do all the Americans who cheered Donovan’s late heroics start following the MLS? Of course not, but some will. And do all those fans leave, if and when the U.S. loses against Ghana, or Uruguay, or South Korea? Some, but that really doesn’t matter very much because now U.S. Soccer has produced a split second where all Americans, soccer fans and detractors experienced what the game of soccer could give them. Drama, excitement, exhilaration.
U.S. soccer now has its moment, and nothing or no one can take that away.