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Thursday, 5 p.m., Subway, crap part of Soho
America has fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with World Cup football. A frenzied love affair that will last until 4:30 p.m. this Saturday, at the very least. Unlike other international teams (OK, maybe not New Zealand) who must perform under the pressure of constant scrutiny from the tabloid press, the United States faces a very different kind of trial. Their players take the field knowing every game they play is akin to a referendum on the future of the sport in this country.
The Algerian game was a classic case in point. As the clock ticked down with the score 0-0, the U.S. was minutes away, not just from elimination, but from the purgatory of four more years of national inconsequence. But, as the great minds at ESPN's marketing team has repeatedly told us, "One rebounded toe-bunger changes everything." Cue the U.S. team as morning-show national sweethearts, their clean-cut collectivism and never-say-die spirit too much for even the most determined soccer skeptics to resist.
Is all of this a flirtation, or is something fundamental and profound evolving in the American sporting DNA? Soccer has, after all, forever been America's "sport of the future." Its recent past, a collection of false dawns and hyperbolic predictions, leaves it perennially perched between "the next big thing" and "yesterday's news." Yet, slow and steady wins the race. Buried beneath the debris of the empty promises of the NASL and the calm build of MLS lies a textured soccer tradition in which the profile of the sport, though no overnight success, has risen inexorably. This World Cup can now permanently transform the sport's place in the American sporting affection.
I came of age in Liverpool, England. The World Cup has been a dominant force in my life, creating a spine against which I have come to mark time. Some of my earliest television-watching memories revolve around the delirious spectacle of the 1978 World Cup, stadiums exploding with confetti whenever Argentina took to the field. The most captivating image from 1982 was the intense Brazilian midfielder Falcao, maniacally celebrating a goal against Italy, the veins in his arms bulging from the screen as if in 3-D, a move I spent the next 12 months perfecting whenever I shinned in a goal on the schoolyard. Maradona's 1986 destruction of my English heroes by means foul and fair was a brutal crash course in ethics. My brother and I ran into the street to vent our grief by blasting a soccer ball straight through the window of our home. My parents, thankfully, understood our pain.
In 1990, I spent the summer as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in Maine and first encountered America's cruel indifference to the sport I loved. The day of England's hard-earned semifinal matchup against West Germany was one of the most frustrating of my life. I spent an afternoon driving frantically from one sleepy rural bar to another. All were broadcasting the local Portland minor league baseball game. Not one was able to direct their massive satellite dishes toward a signal that could pull in the World Cup semifinal. In the pre-Internet age, I had to wait for the next day's Boston Globe to discover the bitter result. Perhaps it was for the best.
I moved to the States in 1992 and have watched with wonder as the profile of the sport has ineluctably risen World Cup to World Cup. Three weeks before this country performed hosting duties in 1994, a Harris Poll declared that national interest in the tournament was so low it would be played in empty stadia. The ludicrous prediction grabbed the headlines and rattled World Cup organizers, but the tournament smashed the World Cup attendance record as teams played before full houses. But this was very much a World Cup of "Being There." Outside of the stadia, the country was too engrossed in the O.J. Simpson car chase and the NBA playoffs to follow the action on TV. I viewed the majority of the games alone, courtesy of a Spanish network on an old television set in the corner of a deserted Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park, Chicago, with only the Mexican barbacks for company.
Between 1998 and 2002, I lived in Washington, D.C., and by then the tournament had achieved cult status in that city. The cognoscenti had become clued-up and flocked to local Brazilian bars or Italian restaurants in Adams Morgan to digest the spectacle. It was around then I began to enjoy weekly English Premier League games with a small yet motley crew at Planet Fred's Bar. We would gather at 10 every Saturday morning to feast on scraps, treating a lackluster matchup -- say Southampton laboring against Leicester City -- as if it was Boca-River Plate.
By chance, I was back in D.C. for the United States' 2006 group stage crunch match against Ghana, and was shocked to see that bar, and many more like it, jam-packed with a line snaking around the block two hours before kickoff. Sadly, the Americans' performance -- they had, somewhat ludicrously, ranked as high as No. 4 in FIFA's rankings ahead of the tournament -- was not as advertised. The game ended in a bruising 2-1 loss and the U.S. limped out in the opening round. One glimmer of hope though: Despite the early exit, television ratings continued to rise as the competition progressed. A sign that, at last, the game was finding an audience in the States.
It is fitting that Ghana will again be America's opponents on Saturday, though to be clear, both teams are remarkably different. The Black Stars are a young, defensive force battling to overcome the loss of injured star Michael Essien, whose intelligently physical game allowed the Ghanaians to dominate the midfield in 2006. The U.S. team is also a different proposition. The 2006 squad was punished for relying on trusty warhorses Eddie Pope and Brian McBride for the third consecutive World Cup. This incarnation is a hard-running, egoless, cohesive unit capable, at times, of playing fluent football.
There are two scenarios as to what can occur at Royal Bafokeng Stadium come 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
THE DAMP SQUIB SCENARIO
The media scrum continues until kickoff. Landon and Jozy are repeatedly pulled from training to address the nation via satellite link to Larry King and the ladies on the couch at "The View." The hangover from the locker room beer or seven imbibed with sudden fan Bill "I have fallen in love with soccer" Clinton leaves the team emotionally spent. The game build-up may be akin to that of the second-coming, but the U.S. will leak one early goal, and then another. Momentum lost, the U.S. offers little in a despondent defeat, and the American viewing public shift their allegiances to Slovakia, attracted by the punk stylings of Marek Hamsik. Landon decamps to California. His efforts to mend fences with Bianca are met by ne'er a single paparazzi flashbulb.
NIKE'S ECSTASY SCENARIO
"Write The Future" may turn out to have been the most ill-fated sports ad campaign since American Express' Andy Roddick's Mojo (or, dare I say Reebok's Dan and Dave campaign?), but Nike may still experience World Cup redemption. The Americans change things up by scoring the opener against a well-drilled Ghana. The goal holds up and the U.S. begins its run deep into this tournament, an exhilarating experience creating one of the largest bandwagons in world history.
The second outcome is so very possible. Placed in a quirky yet even corner of the draw to duke it out with the tough Ghanians, tactical South Koreans, and flowing yet physical Uruguayans, Bob Bradley's team knows it has the raw talent and discipline to proceed. Their greatest motivation may be their greatest challenge: the awareness that a run deep into this tournament will be game-changing for the profile of the sport in this country, in a way that even the bold run in 2002 did not. Surprise victories like those against Portugal and Mexico will feel like an ecstatic fad in comparison.
The tectonic plates have shifted. Not only is U.S. soccer culture alive and flourishing, but the global game is fast taking on an American tinge. U.S. players are competing in elite European leagues in increasing numbers. A veritable feast of soccer is broadcast on American cable on an average weekend (even more than in Britain), eagerly devoured by a generation nourished on the sport by the FIFA PlayStation franchise (which even presciently laid the groundwork for Americans to experience the dulcet commentating tones of Martin Tyler). Three of the most famous English teams are American-owned, including the two with the most titles, Liverpool and Manchester United. Even P. Diddy spread rumors he planned to snap up a team. Perhaps, most significantly of all, Kim Kardashian rebounded on Reggie Bush by reportedly canoodling with Portuguese ketchup connoisseur Cristiano Ronaldo (star of the snuggest undies ever seen on billboards across America), overpaid, over-sexed and very much over here.More proof? Just follow any of these Twitter accounts: @joenbc, @judahworldchamp and @sethmeyers21 for a constant stream of soccer analysis ... not from Tommy Smyth or Alexi Lalas, but "Morning Joe's" Joe Scarborough, "30 Rock's" Judah Friedlander and "Saturday Night Live's" Seth Meyers.
We dreamers riding the bandwagon can envision a quarterfinal battle against Uruguay, Confederations Cup revenge against Brazil in the semis, and a winner-takes-all rematch against a rejuvenated England (just kidding, Argentina fans) in a final that lies just three wins ahead. But the players must not. It is critical that Bradley maintains the prevailing sense of common mission, keeping his team's feet on the ground, Bill Clinton out of the locker room, and the focus on one game at a time. And if all of this comes to pass, we have just more than two weeks to wait before we can say with a straight face: Arise the United States. True Home of Soccer.
One additional note: Readers should rest assured that OTB pod listeners have worked hard to shore up one of the U.S. team's overt weaknesses -- its nickname. Here are four of the best "Yank" replacements tweeted in at @rogbennett:
@rogersworthe: The Balding Eagles (a tribute to Landon's receding hairline)
@zgeballe: The Birds of War
@worldtweetcup: The Wild, Wild Best
@Nickfantana The Immigrants
Keep sending those beauties in. We promise to forward the five best as retweetz to Herculez Gomez.