USA takes a further step to becoming genuine contenders

That thrilling, slightly jarring draw between the US and Portugal on Sunday night was the most watched soccer game of all time in America.

USA takes a further step to becoming genuine contenders

Why has that surprised so many?

The 1994 World Cup might have been a low point for the game but it inspired the setting aside of an ocean or two of money by US Soccer as soon as that dismal decider went Brazil’s way.

Millions upon millions in the form of grants have grown the game at the grassroots and the young ones who benefited have now grown into the prized target audience so craved by advertisers and sports bars.

While observers of England have agonised over the impact of cutbacks on sport at school level, you’d be hard pressed to find a young adult in the US who didn’t avail of the ball-and-a-yard-of-grass accessibility of soccer growing up.

Although the fact that the potentially decisive Group G clash drew in over 25 million sets of eyes is impressive, it’s misleading to compare it favourably to the previous Sunday night’s NBA playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat.

San Antonio had already made that series suddenly one-sided and the cruel irony of their astonishing dominance was that the interest waned for the casual NBA fan. Whereas Miami v San Antonio Game Seven in 2013 was watched by an average of 26.3 million people, 18 million watched the decisive Game Five of 2014, knowing that the end was nigh.

Much more was at stake on Sunday night. Portugal were poor in their previous game and were understrength for this one. Ronaldo was the thoroughly recognisable bête noire — a role I personally think he ramped up a little in the knowledge that America was watching his every calculated move.

Most of all, the late drama of the win against Ghana had raised expectations from the days when the fervour was muted by pre-tournament doubts brought on by the draw itself and the dropping of Landon Donovan.

We all saw what happened then. The reaction has been so interesting and the disappointment has far outweighed the still strong cynicism which remains here about soccer. Any dissenting voices taking the opportunity to row against the tide have been hushed mercilessly.

What I have noticed, however, is a touch of the old condescension from the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s almost as though US fans have yet to gain the right to fully enjoy their stint at the World Cup without being dismissed as part-time.

I find it incredibly galling that Irish people in particular could ever mock an American fan for their less than perfect grasp of the vocabulary of the game — certain media outlets gently ribbing the US with the term ‘soccer-ball’ for instance — when it is in fact we Irish who have Western Europe’s most dismal record in trying to identify with anything approaching a legitimate footballing culture.

Yes, they might struggle mightily with the concept of the draw and the permutations that could possibly inspire another stalemate being played out tactically with the Germans — as remote a possibility as that may be.

But in all fairness, who are we Irish to pour scorn on anybody else? And with the vast majority of our ‘passionate’ soccer fans probably attending three games of any description a year, we’re probably the last country who can dare to look down on anyone else.

America will never be a breeding ground for the sort of fan culture so intrinsic to the game in Europe and South America, the one where historical rivalries can be political, sectarian or even racist — as fascinating as they are problematic.

The NFL will certainly be bigger for a long time and baseball will survive a little while yet as the game most synonymous with the US summer.

But no matter what happens tomorrow, this month of football will be seen as another step along the way to the day when a US team seriously challenges for a World Cup.

I’ve come to learn that there’s no such thing as a bandwagon. We all jump on at some point, be it when a small country like Ireland beats a former colonial master at a major tournament or when a non-traditional soccer nation like the US is just 15 seconds away from sending a world power (supposedly) home with a game to spare.

The football hipster thing is being thrown around now like confetti. If you don’t know who Marc Wilmots used to be, then you can’t appreciate the team of boy wonders he oversees now. But Belgium have been a dreary mess so far and the US have been a joy to watch and really we should just enjoy whatever twist is coming next.


Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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