The changing of America

By Ridge Mahoney

Well, that was a crazy five weeks, give or take a day or two.

The wildest ride in U.S. World Cup history ended Tuesday as millions of fans back home and around the globe agonized, suffered, rejoiced and ultimately nodded their heads in thanks and appreciation of the thrills and chills they’d felt and -- perhaps without realizing it – the threshold they had crossed.

Now a whole lot of Americans know what the world has known for many decades: Major international soccer matches are not only great events, they are made for mass sharing. Otherwise, why would about 25,000 otherwise sensible people gather at Soldier Field in Chicago to wince and whine and whoop as one rather than cozy up to a big-screen TV or gaze at their tablet on a park bench?

When the city of big shoulders goes bonkers for the World Cup, when the home of the Blackhawks and Cubs and Bulls and of course, da Bearz, soccer is no longer classified as a novelty or stuck in a niche. When TV ratings are generated that dwarf any sports programming other than an NFL game or a college football title bout, there’s more going on than passionate patriotism and seizing any reason to skip work and hang out with a few thousand newly found close friends.

The World Cup didn’t start on June 12, when Brazil hosted Croatia, nor when the USA opened its tournament four days later by beating Ghana. For America, the tournament kicked off in late May when word leaked out that U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had picked his 23-man World Cup squad and Landon Donovan wasn’t on it. The nation’s most renowned player and his largest stage had separated, not at all amicably. For Donovan, for Klinsmann, for America, soccer had changed forever.

America didn’t come to a standstill but it did take notice. Variations – some clever, a few offbeat, many aghast – of the “Donovan Dropped!” headline were everywhere. Donovan’s detractors, long fed up with an attitude they perceived as wimpy and stunned by a months-long hiatus of his own origin, went wild. His defenders lashed out at Klinsmann and cited a prickly, rocky, Germanic-driven history -- not performance or fitness -- as main motivation for the move. Klinsmann fueled the fire further by stating Donovan could be an emergency replacement if need be.

Reactions and opinions were solicited from anyone remotely connected to the game. Both were cast as hero and villain. Klinsmann the Idiot, Donovan the Diva, Klinsmann the Genius, Donovan the Martyr, Klinsmann the King, Donovan the Downtrodden … all were played out. When months-old comments from the coach that expectations of winning the World Cup were unrealistic re-circulated, outrage spewed from numerous outlets. No less a cultural and philosophical guru than Steven Colbert dubbed Herr Klinsmann “Field Marshall Buzzkill.”

This World Cup would not be about soccer, it would be about egos, politics, personality, controversy, and culture clashes, along with the human drama of athletic competition. Figure skating gave the world Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding; soccer gave America mellow, introspective Landon and tough, effervescent Jurgen.

The backlash persisted through the warm-up games, all of which the USA won, which was all well and good, but how could the Americans without their icon possibly survive the “Group of Death?”  As it turned out, pretty damn well, and in unprecedented numbers people who reveled in double plays and slam dunks gathered and assembled to join those already converted, for whom breaking out the red, white, and blue when the ball rolls out is as natural as drawing breath. Those that did assemble in front of  their TV sets did so in record numbers, and their ranks swelled as the competition unfolded. If soccer wasn’t quite the new thing it has supposedly been for decades, it’s no longer the dork sport, either.

Fortunately for ESPN, audiences were huge for non-U.S. games as well, and a tournament rife with upstarts and toppled powerhouses and upsets and late goals generated dramatic moments and incredible scenes every day of the first round. Filled, noisy stadiums gave each telecast a backdrop of color and undercurrent of electricity, and whether a viewer saw Brazilians celebrating a Costa Rican goal against Uruguay or vividly orange sections of Dutch fans saluting the demise of Spain, tuning in was a treat.

When fans defied a snowstorm in Colorado to watch the USA beat Costa Rica – now there’s a reference point! – at a packed Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in March of last year, the match featured more than a 1-0 USA win and midfielder Jermaine Jones’ “Snow-Fro.” As the snow deepened, the din increased. The Rapids seldom sell out, but that qualifier in their stadium did, and those fans endured wet and cold to back their team come what may.

That same spirit burns in those at the stadiums and on the beaches of Brazil, those gathered for the viewing parties in Chicago and Redondo Beach and Lebanon, Pa., and those wearing camouflage fatigues in Afghanistan. The U.S. players go hard, but to truly bleed the colors as do their counterparts around the world, they must play for something greater than themselves. Many of them said they were shocked to see the massive crowds in Brazil and back home cheering them on. There's something going on.

In 10 days the World Cup will be over. The images will fade, the headlines wiil be forgotten. America will turn its attention to pennant races, the NFL, immigration, and affordable health care. But all is not as it once was.

Since the 1994 tournament ignited American interest in the event and the national team, pundits have opined that for the game to flourish, the USA must at least be respectable and competitive.

The U.S. players now know that more of their people care more than they ever did before. For decades, the World Cup has forged teams intensely bonded to their culture and their heritage and their flag. Maybe, just maybe, America has started to catch up.

18 comments about "The changing of America".
  1. Dan Woog, July 3, 2014 at 7:04 a.m.

    You nailed it, Ridge. We've reached the tipping point. There is so much more to point to too -- including the photos of President Obama watching a match on Air Force One; the tweets from professional athletes and celebrities and ordinary Americans agonizing and praising and thanking the US team, and the comments from fans in Brazil and throughout the world, wishing the US well. We've joined the party, and (for once) the rest of the planet is happy to have us.

  2. Mark Hardt, July 3, 2014 at 7:12 a.m.

    One thing not being said is the international calendar is filled up with Tournaments. Lets see if those casual fans can pay attention to" 2015 gold Cup, 2016 Special edition Copa America, 2017: confederations cup and qualifying against Martinique starting in 2016.

  3. Kevin Sims, July 3, 2014 at 7:43 a.m.

    Soccer is now mianstream cool in the USA. More $$$ will flow from more corporations to have a presence in USA soccer. More kids will be exposed to and attracted to soccer. The USA will supply a truly elite team. The 2034 World Cup wil be riveting to the max!

  4. G O, July 3, 2014 at 9:58 a.m.

    Mr. Hardt, well written. I like and would wish to echo your comment above. People seem to forget that guys like NASCAR drivers and movie/TV/Hollywood celebs have realized that Tweeting and being reTweeted just increases their "brand." Do people really think that Dale Jr. or Jeff Gordon are avid soccer fans? Their agents encourage them to Tweet, post, make comments and exploit all this PR stuff with free social media. Just as the PR people for a politician know that it looks good for a president, governor, senator or VP to act like they care. Dumb people actually believe that they care (a la a president watching on Air Force 1) The calendar is full already. It's why so many of these players appear so weary on the pitch. Lastly: Does anyone here remember the Summer Olympics hosted by the USA and centered on Los Angeles in 1984? Saudi Arabia, if one can believe it, squared off against Brazil in the final match for that Olympics. Despite Saudi Arabia as a finalist, the game was a sellout crowd. As was nearly every match of World Cup 1994 ten years later, setting a FIFA World Cup attendance record that France, Japan/Korea, Germany, South Africa, and Brazil now come nowhere near. No country believes it can ever touch the fan records the USA blew away when it hosted in 1994. The same is true when the USA hosts for women's soccer tournaments. Soccer has been a large part of the fabric of America's sports, entertainment, pastime, and merchandising for a LONG, LONG time already. It is the number one youth sport - has been for the last two decades already. People need to stop acting like soccer is or has just arrived. It arrived before Pele, Julio Cesar, Georgio Chignalia, and Franz Beckenbauer showed up for the Cosmos. The true fans and millions of them were "into it" long, long ago. It just too a very lethargic, stubborn, recalcitrant media a good bit longer to "arrive."

  5. Karl Schreiber, July 3, 2014 at 11:20 a.m.

    You guys are forgetting something: The "'s FUTBOL" commercials with Adriana Lima (more than 3 Million hits on youtube) - and other pretty good World Cup commercials by major brands...

  6. I w Nowozeniuk, July 3, 2014 at 11:46 a.m.

    Mark H. you're on the ball. WC euphoria can last so long; and to think that the media/popular frenzy will last is a bit far fetched. The WC finally became a 'big noise' with Americans, mainly because the USNMT are the underdog and each win provided a boost to its non-core base.

  7. John Soares, July 3, 2014 at 12:51 p.m.

    It was a "giant" among the many baby steps so far and many more to come. No, this WC will not convert America. However at this stage every positive step is important. As such this was huge.

  8. John DiFiore, July 3, 2014 at 4:09 p.m.

    yea, but we still didnt play as well as promised. The fact that Timmy got pounded in the Belgium match shows that not a lot has changed, play wise. I'm very disappointed.

  9. Thomas Hosier, July 3, 2014 at 6:32 p.m.

    Yes, John Difiore "Timmy got pounded," still he did his job and the final score was 1-2 in overtime. Because Tim did his job Team USA was in the match until the final whistle. Because Tim did his job Wondo had a chance to win in regulation. When our guys are down 2-NIL at the start of overtime Green and Bradley connect for a quick goal to put the USA right back in the game. A brilliant set play set up another opportunity for an equalizer. Did we lose 1-2 yes, but our guys will live to play another day. Lots of work to do? YES! Is our USMNT competitive HELL YES! Will they get better by next World Cup YES! Is soccer "coming to America" ... Folks it has been here for a long time. It is no longer believed to be a communist plot to take over the United States. Soccer players in High School are not considered first rate athletes. Soccer....WELCOME to AMERICA.

    Keep kicking grass my friends.

    See you at the pitch!

  10. G O, July 4, 2014 at 1:46 a.m.

    The game flourishes in the USA just fine whether the USMNT does fairly well or just fair to middlin' at World Cups. Fan interest in the US does not wane one iota if the US males hit a hiccup at a big tournament. Just one very obvious indicator of tremendous US citizen soccer interest that just does not quit: Won't there be very robust crowds when the US hosts the Gold Cup 2015 edition just a year from now? And this: Don't I see the usual suspects of Inter Milan, Manchester City, Man United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, AS Roma, etc. coming -- as they always do now -- for pure friendlies in the July timeframe? Yes, I do. This is now a summer staple. Why do these big clubs come to the USA? Simple: Huge fan base. Fans coming out, buying tickets, buying merchandise. They come here because the other continents of the world just don't offer the same consistently large and lucrative fan base response - as consistently and with TV money, etc. Are people unable to see? (I don't mean the readership here at the SA website.) The MLS can just incrementally chug along toward betterments. It matters not if the MLS stutters along a bit for the next 10-15 years, though I think this unlikely (the MLS will do quite well overall). The USA is a soccer filled nation of people who love this game - and spend a lot of money on it, and follow lots of aspects of the global game on a regular basis. Just ask the people who sell European and South American soccer viewing TV/web/cable packages. This has been the USA I see, travel, witness just about wherever I've been for the last 20 - 25 years (and more). The USA would not have been wisely selected as the Centennial Copa America 2016 host -- were it not for the fundamental truth that the stadiums in Washington, D.C., Orlando, Miami, the Meadowlands, Houston, Los Angeles and stanford will be filled to capacity for just about every match? This "filled to stadium capacity" for 78,000 seater stadiums would not be the case if Argentina, Peru, Chile, or even Brazil were hosting Copa America Special Edition 2016. One need say no more. The soccer fan following here in the USA is one big, huge gold mine.

  11. Martha Diop, July 4, 2014 at 8:50 a.m.

    I am tempted to ask this question. Is not the USMNT World Cup performance a way to gauge the progress of the American Youth Soccer system, and its ability to produce talent that can compete aptly at the world stage?
    If that is the case, and the USMNT does brilliantly but with 7 or 8 talented players developed by foreign Youth system (for instance Germany), how reliable is the result for making any assessment of how well US is doing in terms of soccer player development? By relying on the excellent results achieved by a team loaded with foreign talent (some who have never seen the US for instance), is not there a risk to be blinded and believe that US is making progress, and US youth system is getting better? What happens when the next coach decides to use a 100% homegrown roster and results are abysmal (e.g. not even qualify for World Cup)? Would we say JK was brilliant while his successor is inept?

  12. Ginger Peeler, July 4, 2014 at 10:23 a.m.

    Martha, think DeAndre Yedlin.

  13. Valerie Metzler, July 4, 2014 at 2:20 p.m.

    As much as I'm tired of hearing the talk about whether or not Americans have embraced the sport or not, and as much as I don't really care--just as long as I can watch and read about all the MLS, EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga and SerieA matches I want (is that selfish)--I will finally believe that US has embraced the sport when my local high school team gets as much recognition and support as that other "football."

  14. Ginger Peeler, July 4, 2014 at 5:10 p.m.

    Valerie, I think both "footballs" receive a lot of attention and respect on the west coast and in the west. Not so much in a lot of the south. We moved from San Diego to a town in Arkansas where the local paper's sport editor refused to cover the boys or girls high school soccer games. He declared that soccer was a communist sport. He was dead serious. In 1996, my daughter was the first female from Arkansas to receive a soccer scholarship to a college in another state. The papers and local TV covered the football signings for scholarships to colleges that were offered to our boys. If any of the boys on our soccer team were offered scholarships, only their parents and close friends knew. I'll believe soccer has finally arrived when the SEC and other college football powerhouses add another sport for women (to satisfy Title IX) and then field a soccer team!

  15. Ginger Peeler, July 4, 2014 at 6:34 p.m.

    I meant for them to field a men's soccer team. Title IX was wonderful for women's' college sports, but a lot of colleges then dropped their mens' soccer teams.

  16. G O, July 5, 2014 at 2:25 p.m.

    @Ms. Peeler: Yes, ma'am. Sports like boys wresting, boys swimming, boys diving, boys gymnastics were also dropped. The problem is not the competition that soccer runs up against versus gridiron football, the problem (in the example you introduce here) is Title IX. Don't worry. In most cases, time is on your side as the ability to fill out a 40+ player high school (and college, Division II and III) gridiron football squad - and the expense of running such football programs - means, if academic schools stay with sports programs for their students - means soccer will nudge its way on to parity and then surpass. This is, frankly speaking, just inevitable. Caveat: Traditional gridiron football cultural bastions like places in certain parts and pockets of Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee etc. as just some examples where gridiron football will always have a nose ahead. But no one need shed a tiny fret on where and just how far the sport of soccer will go and be in the USA and Canada.

  17. G O, July 5, 2014 at 2:35 p.m.

    Frankly, I am with Ms. Diop. I don't anymore want to see Timmy Chandlers and Fabian Johnsons who are surely fine athletes and soccer players but who truly have no ties at all to this country. We are bankrupt if we have an eligible pool of over 1 million aged 18 - 32 who play the game at some level. It really is odd to see a USMNT group in a big hotel lobby in say Miami, Chicago, or Washington, D.C. and realize that this is the first time 4 or 5 of the players have ever been to these cities and venues, though they are grown adults. For lack of a better term, let's get away from the USMNT players who are just 72 hours, 4 days, or week long "tourists" in this country, only here as mercenaries for the paycheck and the fact that they've elected the US because the offer from the place they were raised just never came. It's simply laziness as it is easy to find these half US fellows on the web playing in leagues like Norway's, Denmark's, the Netherlands, Germany, and countless other countries. The talent pool is right here right now, perfectly ready to be polished up a bit and outperform what we just saw in four not so good matches at all. The simple reason we don't know the "undiscovered" real talent here, know their names, and get the chance to see them in prime time ESPN coverage is the laziness of US Soccer officialdom at all the U levels and obviously at the adult level. Remember: Texas, California, and Florida alone have more talent than just about all other countries in the world. Just those three states.

  18. R2 Dad, July 10, 2014 at 2:19 a.m.

    G O, we can't do anything about the fact that the US military sends tens of thousands of americans overseas to protect the USA and US interests in foreign lands. The fact that those americans have children, and those children may or may not have even visited the US, seems to greatly offend you. Too bad. They are americans just like you and me. The fact that these sons of american soldiers played their youth soccer in Germany seems to have greatly benefited them, and they are better players than ones trained solely in the USA. Oh well, I hope we continue to scour the planet for americans overseas, because from what I can tell our youth soccer systems keep going backwards and we are no closer to developing top notch talent today than we were in 2004. Yes, there is talent here, but nothing happens between the ages of 12 and 18 and our youths continue to struggle to qualify for U world cup tournaments because our coaches, coaching and training methods are so backward compared to Italy, Germany and the other top countries. Until we stop creating new leagues every year, adding more and more teams, and thinning out the talent every year, we will continue to struggle displacing the timmy chandlers and fabian johnsons. Fixing our crap youth soccer system should be a national priority, but once we do it we will finally develop world class talent. But who knows when that will finally happen.

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