Detroit ó Clearly, weíre getting the stomach for this. From an amazing gut check to a demoralizing gut punch, the U.S. menís national soccer team is taking a ride, and I have a feeling more and more Americans are about to hop aboard.
Some sort of captivating story is being written, and re-written, in the rain forests of Brazil, and it doesnít take a soccer expert (or even a soccer snob) to see it. Like most Americans, I peek at the World Cup every four years, figure the U.S. will score a couple goals, proclaim a new day is coming, then step aside for the real powers.
But this feels different, more authentic. The U.S. nearly pulled off one of its greatest victories Sunday, settling for a 2-2 tie with Portugal, which scored with about 20 seconds left. A victory would have pushed the Americans into the elimination round, but now they need at least a tie against Germany on Thursday to guarantee it.
You watched, didnít you? I watched, and I must admit, it felt a bit like a playoff football Sunday, tension mounting toward kickoff, eyes on the TV, hands on the snacks.
You cheered, didnít you? Of course you did, and when U.S captain Clint Dempsey, sporting a black eye from a broken nose, belly-bumped in a goal for a late 2-1 lead, there were spontaneous celebrations everywhere.
It was a crushing conclusion, when Portugalís great Cristiano Ronaldo fired a long pass that Silvestre Varela headed in as the final seconds ticked down. The experts said the Americans played very well but made a couple defensive gaffes that cost them. My novice eyes saw the same thing, as well as more thrilling saves and scoring chances than I expected. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmannís experienced eyes saw even more.
ďObviously when you get into the last seconds, itís unfortunate, but it was an amazing game, an amazing performance by our guys,Ē Klinsmann said. ďThereís nothing more you could ask for. We take even more confidence into the next game.Ē
This isnít about the tactical specifics, because as much as its supporters tout the Beautiful Game, soccer is a youthful endeavor and a curiosity for a majority of Americans. Itís about the emotions, which are rocketing, and I think it stems from one simple concept ó being an underdog.
We donít get to do this very often and it shows, in a good way. Itís one of the few big stages the U.S. doesnít control, and isnít really feared. Thatís part of the appeal, getting to have all the unbridled exuberance and less of the pressure.
Weíre standing right on that narrow line now, the one drawn between soccerís fierce loyalists and its occasional lurkers. If the U.S. were to beat powerful Germany, or advance anyhow and win a knockout game or two, the long-rumored soccer revolution might not be just a punchline here anymore.
More and more Americans are watching this World Cup ó ESPN set a menís soccer viewership record of 11.1 million during the 2-1 victory over Ghana. Combine ESPNís audience with Spanish-speaking Univision and the number grows to 15.9 million, not far from the 17.9 million that watched Game 5 of the NBA Finals. FIFA officials have said U.S. fans bought more tickets to the games than any country except host Brazil.
How often do Americans get to be passionate and patriotic, outside of the nasty smattering of global conflicts? You see it in the Olympics but those are a lot of individual sports, and Americans are favored to win many of them.
The U.S. non-competitive humility long made the World Cup less inviting, but the appeal has exploded this time, with more exciting games and few 0-0 snoozers. I watched the entire U.S.-Portugal contest and was prepared to be annoyed by the sportís infamous flopping, but it was no more pervasive than a standard Miami Heat game.
It's own 'Miracle'
Now, we do need to keep this in perspective. When the black-eyed, broken-nosed captain belly-bumped in that goal and U.S. fans erupted, something special was happening. Then came Portugalís response. And now comes Germany, which could send the U.S. team home.
Putting together historic drama is easier to do every four years, not every Sunday. Football dominates in the U.S., and thereís nothing comparable in other nations to distract people from soccer. Football has its issues, and the long-term problem of player concussions could drive away athletes. But rather than pine for a faraway day when soccer is as popular in the U.S., fans should appreciate what they have, and welcome those who are curious.
Major League Soccer averages respectable crowds of 18,000-plus, and thereís a reason ďsoccer momĒ is a uniquely American term. Kids love the game and so do many immigrants. But before Americans wholly embrace something, they have to think they can win it. Competitive ambition is what pushed the race to the moon with the Soviet Union and what enthralled so many when the U.S. pulled off the Olympic hockey miracle in 1980.
American soccer needs its own Miracle on Ice, something larger than the U.S. womenís World Cup victory in 1999. That was inspiring, but not revolutionary.
Nobody thinks the U.S. can win this World Cup, and even the coach downplayed its chances. But from the gut to the heart, something is stirring. A few more goals from broken-nosed captains and unheralded backups and it could be the biggest soccer stir weíve seen.