After suffering defeat in the round of sixteen to Belgium, the United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) has been knocked out of the World Cup. Despite one of the most impressive efforts of all time, Tim Howard and Team USA were able to hold off the Belgian attack for 90 plus minutes before allowing two goals in overtime. Howard was given man of the match, which is nearly impossible as a part of the losing team, for having the most saves in over 50 years (16). So you certainly cannot blame the once somewhat well-known, now unbelievably popular, keeper for the team’s shortcomings.
Now while Howard himself may not be around for the next go, there are plenty of young players coming up, and there are plenty of reasons to stay positive about the future of USA Soccer. This run went a long way in vaulting soccer to the popularity podium that the NFL and NBA have stood alone on in recent memory, in large part due to the marketing of the “Group of Death” and our “defeating” it. I’m not saying the MLS is going to have nearly the television ratings of an NFL Sunday in America, but it is certainly on the rise.
Thanks in part to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media the United States soccer accomplishments could not be ignored. The younger generations, the deciding factor of what’s popular, forced all who wanted to keep socially relevant to follow the team or at least know we could have tied Germany in the third game to guarantee our advancement to the next round. Thus, Meme’s and inspirational Hashtags exploded out onto the web. Soccer instantly took on an identity that only national teams can. The nation as a whole had one team and one cause to cheer for, providing a sense of unity for everyone watching and posting together.
People gathered together in family rooms, bars, and city parks to watch the games together, chanting “I Believe” in their red, white, and blue. The experienced watchers taught the rules to an eager new crowd, allowing all to share the moment. The broadcast times played well into work schedules, although by coincidence. Other than a lunch-time game versus Germany the games were early enough to avoid losing viewers that don’t prefer to stay up late. Sports fans often complain about the late NBA Playoff games on weeknights, and I think this 4 or 6 p.m. timeframe worked well to grab a diverse range of age groups, especially on the East Coast. ESPN posted a 9.6 Nielsen rating during the Belgium game according to variety.com, compared to the 10.2 during the Rose Bowl for scale (sportsmediawatch.com). Between major networks Fox and ESPN covering the run, soccer popularity was inevitable.
Popularity is the most important building block for the future of soccer in our country, and like I said before, it starts with the youth. Kids saw Jordan-style players in the NBA crossing people up and shooting jumpers. So the big man that plays with his back to the basket disappeared from basketball. Young people watching football saw offensive players getting all of the attention in the NFL, not to mention in fantasy football. That led to the high scoring elite athletes we see today. Between concussions and all the rules favoring the offense, the game is only going to continue in that direction. The game develops as the fan base does. Don’t be surprised when you start seeing children in Jermaine Jones jerseys and buy your first Tim Howard poster/fathead.
My belief is that the United States will be a well-known threat to compete for the cup or for any other international winnings in about eight to twelve years. They went into this tournament ranked 13th just behind perennial powerhouses like Italy and England. It’s clear we are getting there now. We committed to getting Jürgen Klinsmann early and changing the approach to the national team. It’s only a matter of time before parents shy away from the injuries associated with football and start pushing their kids toward “safer” sports. I’m not sure there was a more opportune time for American soccer, if such things can be said about this unfortunate topic, for all the concussion testing and lawsuits to come out in regards to the NFL. Throw in the new academies popping up near MLS teams and the new incentives for said teams to move near these soccer academies, and we have a new generation of stars eating and breathing the sport. USA’s soccer will soon catch up to the country’s dominance of football, basketball, and nearly all of our women’s sports teams in the international ranks. Stay patient, calm, and confident. I Believe!
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