I Believe

I haven’t been posting much, and definitely haven’t had much to say about the World Cup. There’s no shortage of words written about it, and I haven’t felt a need to add to the din. But with the US about to take on Belgium this afternoon in what might well be the most-watched US game ever (depending on whether it can pass the US-Portugal match from a couple weeks back), it feels good to put down a few thoughts about the tournament, our team, and our fans.

Plus, I’m nervous as hell, and maybe writing a bit will settle my nerves.

World Cup 2014

World Cup 2014This might be the best World Cup any of us watch in our lifetime. Of course, a lot depends on how the upcoming matches go. In particular, if we end up with a lot of European teams in the quarterfinals — if Belgium and/or Switzerland join Germany, France, and the Netherlands — the games could get more and more cagey, with dour play and listless extra time.

But! So far, the games have been stellar. There have been surprising comebacks, underdog victories, tenacious defense, surprising stars, and lots of goals. Wonderful, wonderful goals. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s the swashbuckling, attacking teams that have done well, and the defensive teams that have fallen back. It’s been exciting and fun to watch, and we’ve been able to enjoy a beautiful tournament.

Let’s enjoy it while we have it — we may never see its like again.

The US Fans

I’m kind of bored with the question we hear with every world cup: Is this when soccer “turns the corner” in the US? Truth is, there are always going to be fans who love the game, fans who hate it, and fans who pay attention when big things happen. The numbers will shift between the groups, but there will never be an answer for the meaningless question of whether soccer has “made it” in the US.

What we have, though, is a level of public attention for the game that we’ve never had before. We’ve already seen that in MLS in Seattle and Portland and Kansas City; we’ve seen it in the NASL with San Antonio and New York and Indianapolis. We’re seeing it with the NBC Sports coverage of English soccer, with virtually every game available for viewing — some on major network stations. And we’re certainly seeing it with the strong ratings for this World Cup.

I’m sure any soccer fan will have anecdotes that reflect this; our friends and coworkers know who we are, and they seek us out when they want to get involved. For me, the touchstone was US vs Portugal. I went to see it at my local pub (Union Jack), which was packed to the rafters inside, and held a large party outside with hundreds of fans watching and drinking. I got hugs from strangers and showered with beer after the US goals; it was electric and fans were singing for most of the match. But maybe the most telling scene was at the end of the game, after the US gave up that late equalizer. The sag and sadness in the crowd was palpable, and the fans walked away in quiet groups. As I walked home in my US jersey, a driver went past and yelled “F*** PORTUGAL” out the window.

As soccer fans, that’s not at all surprising to us; we feel that after several games every year. (Indy Eleven fans have grown all too familiar with it.) But you know what’s surprising? Nobody was there just for the good time, or just to hang out. It was hundreds of fans at this pub (and replicated at scores of venues across the city, state and country) filled with fans who cared about the game. Cared deeply.

That nucleus of diehard fans appears to be huge and growing. But it almost doesn’t matter, because that nucleus is here, and it’s not going away. Has soccer turned the corner? I don’t really know what that means. What I do know is that soccer is now firmly rooted in the US, and it’s not going away. I started seriously following soccer in the late 90s; it was a lonely experience — illustrated best in 2002 by setting the alarm clock for 2AM to watch matches from Japan or Korea.

No longer. Soccer fans have a home in the US now.

The US Team

When I was asked about the chances of the US men’s team — both after the draw and as the tournament approached, my answer was consistent: We drew a very difficult group, and we would be lucky to advance. It was certainly possible that we could play well and still go out; we could find honor in such a defeat.

But we were not eliminated.

John Brooks scores the winner against Ghana.

Without breaking down the matches, it’s fair to say that they broke about as well as a sane US fan would imagine: a win over Ghana, followed by a draw with Portugal, and a meaningless loss to Germany at the end of the group. But the US got there with style and verve; and their four points could easily been six if they’d only held out another thirty seconds against Ronaldo. It might have been interesting to see what a game against Germany would have looked like had the US required a win — but as it was, the smart tactical play was to first make sure we kept the score low, and we accomplished exactly that.

It’s good to remember that the Group of Death isn’t just something the US were burdened with — it’s something the US, in part, caused. The US is not a dominant team, capable of imposing its will on any opponent. But what they are is almost worse: an unpredictable team with determination, skill, size, and lots and lots of energy. The US can easily give up soft, early goals; commit grievous mistakes, make naive choices, and waste golden opportunities. But they can also play tenacious defense, find surprising ways to score, and outwork almost any opponent. And they play in front of a truly world-class goalkeeper. If your team is facing the US, you’ll feel like you certainly could win comfortably — but until you have a big lead with time running out, you’ll be quite nervous about what might happen.

I have no idea what will happen against Belgium tonight. The team could easily get behind early, chase the game too hard, and give up a truckload of goals. It would certainly be no shame to lose to a skilled and dangerous Belgium team.

And yet. The US can win this game. The US matches up reasonably well against Belgium, especially in comparison to the winners of a few other groups. The very unpredictable nature of the US team can work to their advantage if the game stays close and doubt begins to creep into the Belgian players. “Are we next?” they might wonder.

It’s been said a lot, but you know what? I believe.

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyWVia7hzGs%5D
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