I didn’t believe. Or rather, I struggled to believe that soccer in the United States would generate the passionate enthusiasm that crams bars, that causes large number of salarymen and frat boys to wear jerseys on match day, that engenders palpable euphoria and then disappointment. I would have predicted that the game was still years away from this kind of following. I would have been wrong.
We shouldn’t get carried away by this World Cup and its enormous television audience and all the interest witnessed today. The success of this tournament will only modestly boost Major League Soccer attendance over the next four years; English Premier League ratings on NBC’s sports network will continue to grow, but they were already on an upward trajectory. What's more, the World Cup is a quadrennial party, a rare event that easily holds short-term interest.
Still, it does feel like the game has passed an important threshold. In part, the generational change that has been long predicted has finally arrived. There’s a significant group of twenty-somethings who grew up playing the game, both on the pitch and on PlayStation. They know the international cast of characters, the chants, the finer points of tactics. In part, American media (especially ESPN) has done a brilliant job carrying the game to a larger audience. Soccer’s base is not NFL-sized, but it is no longer niche. The game has traveled much further and faster into the mainstream that I imagined—and it’s exhilarating.
This relatively anonymous iteration of the US team hardly seemed to likely to be that one to acquire such a mass following. The performance of the squad was appalling in patches during the games against Ghana, Germany and Belgium—the defense was careless, there were distressingly few quality shots on goal, and possession was easily disrupted. But then, that was inevitable. There were very few top-drawer players on the roster—Tim Howard aside. Klinsmann relied on journeymen and the stars of second-rate leagues.
That should give us good reasons for hope about the future of the game and the future of the Klinsmann era. He has built a platform that enables even a mediocre side to play attractive attacking football; and it is capable of foiling far more talented teams. Despite his (factually correct) grumblings about the limits of Team USA, he has managed to create a culture that genuinely believes in its chances against the great powers of the game; his team doesn’t abandon hope at their first mistake or after squandering a lead.
Julian Green’s goal at the end of the game contained the promise of a much more skilled generation of players on the cusp of arriving, the type of players who could carry a Klinsmann-coached team much deeper into a tournament. (DeAndre Yedlin similarly flashed impressive speed and real ability to deliver crosses.) There’s the spellbinding 17-year old Gidion Zelalem who could very well be starting at Arsenal before the next World Cup. The German power Borussia Dortmund has two young Americans (Junior Flores and Joseph Gyau) who seemed primed for bigger things.
Anticipating the strength of team in the distant future is, of course, a fool’s game. But it’s a fool’s game that multiudes of Americans are now playing.