After two weeks of snowballing hysteria, from John Brooks’ last-minute goal to steal a late win over Ghana to Tim Howard’s dazzling display to carry them into extra time against Belgium, the U.S. Men’s National Team did what they have done for the past decade: play heart-in-your-throat, sweaty-palm games to the very death.
Unfortunately, the death was theirs at the 120th minute against Belgium Tuesday afternoon. Outplayed most of the day, they pushed the game to extra time before conceding two goals, then stealing one back to give hope once more. A frantic flurry over the game’s final 10 minutes proved not enough, with a couple of golden chances slipping away.
But this World Cup run has helped soccer make a bigger “s” mark on the nation than ever before. In Chicago, 28,000 fans packed Soldier Field to watch the game on the big screen. Watch parties around D.C. drew thousands of fans, including an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 at Freedom Plaza.
Columnist John Feinstein claims that no Americans will care about soccer now that the U.S. is out. He may be right that American interest in this World Cup will die out, but his open dismissal of World Cup fever as a symptom of the game’s growth seems short-sighted.
Major League Soccer continues to flourish, slowly but steadily, with nearly 160 percent more people attending games than in 2003. Part of that is expansion (the league has blossomed from nine to 19 franchises, with four more set to come online in the next few years), but average attendance is also up 20 percent per arena from a decade ago.
Five MLS stadiums averaged better than 20,000 fans per game in 2012. Despite playing in decrepit RFK, D.C. United still pulled nearly 14,000. The league average — 18,807 — was higher than both the NHL (17,455) and the NBA (17,407).
Americans love a sport in which they feel comfortable investing their energy. For many years, soccer at the World Cup level was not such a sport for the U.S. It’s hard to believe, but this was the first time the U.S. Men’s National Team advanced to the knockout stage in consecutive World Cups. Ever.
That makes this a time unlike any other in American soccer history. Never has the U.S. been this good, and so it makes sense that never have people been this interested. With 19-year-old Julian Green — considered by many the best young player on the team — providing the glimpse of the future with his immediate impact, scoring the lone American goal in extra time, the future looks bright already.
And if you’re still interested in how the World Cup will play out, if the first two rounds have been any indication it could be one of the greatest of all time.
Five of the eight games in the round of 16 went into extra time. Three of the top five teams in the world, and five of the top 11, remain alive in the tournament. The quarterfinals promise potential intra-continental classics between Germany and France as well as Colombia and Brazil.