Will Soccer Stick?

On Saturday, for reasons I would not like to relive, the United States was eliminated from the 2010 FIFA World Cup. After the team’s dramatic victory over Algeria on Wednesday, I went all out for their match against Ghana. My family and I went all out, digging out American flags left over from Independence Days past and decking ourselves out in red, white, and blue. My dad and I researched local sports bars so we would watch the big game in the perfect place. We finally settled on Kim Bokamper’s Bokamper’s Sports Bar & Grill in Plantation. The atmosphere and food were great. It was like the 4th of July.

Unfortunately, like I said, the game didn’t go so great. It was nothing short of a heartbreaker. Afterwards, as I was reflecting the successes and struggles of this American team, I thought, “Could this come at a worse time for U.S. soccer?”

After Landon Donovan’s heroics against Algeria, Americans were pumped. One moment the U.S. was just minutes away from elimination, and the next moment they had actually won their group. (The last time the U.S. had won their group was back in 1930, at the first ever World Cup.) The team officially became news when the mainstream media jumped on the bandwagon.

But with the increased media coverage came expectations. The U.S. already came into the tournament with some goals (pun not intended) and repeatedly said that if they didn’t advance out of group play, it would be a “failure”. Despite some adversity in the group stage, things ultimately went in favor of the U.S.:

“Rare will be the times when the U.S. will have a group stage as navigable as the one it enjoyed in this tournament. Even rarer will be the World Cups where the entire bracket will break as kindly as this edition did. A place in the semifinals was not beyond the Americans.” Jeff Carlisle, ESPN

Maybe it’s sentiment like this, that the U.S. was poised to make a deep run into the World Cup, that got people’s hopes up, because now that the Round of 16 was starting, it seemed everyone was watching. The anticipation for Saturday’s match was absolutely ridiculous, in the best way possible. The U.S. men’s soccer team finally got people’s attention.

And then they lost.

So what now? Sure, players and fans will first take the time to lick their wounds. But it’s never too soon to start looking towards the future.

Discussing the future of the players is one thing. Over the next four years, as the team works to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, they will lose some of their key veterans. The younger players will gain even more experience, though, and now Coach Bradley (should he stay) will know exactly which areas need to improve. There is certainly a lot of potential.

But will Americans care? That’s really the question I’m getting at. Americans are notorious in the international community for not warming up to soccer. Our national pastime is baseball and our religion is football- the kind played with a pigskin. Soccer just isn’t a priority for the majority of sports fans in the U.S.

That’s slowly changing though. The United States hosted the 1994 tournament, suburban soccer moms are now part of our national identity, World Cup matches are earning record ratings, and growing numbers of immigrants are bring their passion for soccer stateside. The U.S. is in the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (sign the  petition here).  Still, that’s no guarantee that soccer and the World Cup are now part of our national consciousness.

Now that America’s ride in the tournament is over, it’s time for people to hop off the bandwagon. After all, the loss against Ghana was a bitter disappointment (mostly because it was our fault). And it happened just as when excitement in the team was peaking- we were ready for more. Instead, we’re out. The U.S. failed to advance in front of one of their biggest audiences. This loss was a wasted opportunity, not just for the team’s future success, but they lost a chance to really hook fans on the product: soccer.

Even if the U.S. improves in the next few years, chances are they won’t be elite. So is it worth it to keep rooting for them? And what about the World Cup as a whole? Will there be a dip in ratings now that the U.S. has been eliminated? Or will fans stay interested? Will soccer actually begin to matter to Americans?

Even though I feel a bit deflated after the loss, I really am starting to appreciate soccer and the World Cup- this is intense stuff. I’m definitely not an expert on soccer, but I’m learning a lot this summer. So I’m going to stick around and watch this play out, and I hope lots of new soccer fans will join me.

What about you guys? As always, let me know what you think in the comments!

~ Sarah