By Michelle Kaufman The Miami Herald
TSHWANE-PRETORIA, South Africa — Was Wednesday the day? Was Wednesday the watershed moment U.S. Soccer has been waiting for all these years, the day American sports fans were finally infected with World Cup fever, to the point that they skipped work, packed bars, screamed at the screen, texted and e-mailed friends about the game, and spilled onto the streets in jubilation when Landon Donovan scored his dramatic 91st-minute goal to send the U.S. to the Round of 16?
Was Wednesday the day it officially became uncool to suggest soccer is boring?
Sure seemed that way from here. Twitter and Facebook were saturated with World Cup comments. Internet usage in the United States peaked during the final minutes of the game. Bars all over America were overcrowded by late morning.
U.S. defender Jay DeMerit, who grew up in Green Bay, Wis., said when he got back to the locker room after the on-field celebration, his cell phone was overloaded with texts and messages.
“I had calls from friends watching in bars in Chicago, LA, New York, you name it,” he said. “Growing up in Wisconsin, I usually don’t have 100 soccer-related e-mails a day from people. I do now. These are people who probably never watched a soccer game in their lives. We are starting to turn a lot of people’s heads. It’s a huge step in right direction. That’s our job as flag bearers, as players of this national team, to get people to enjoy the game.”
And if you couldn’t enjoy this game, you will never be sold on soccer. Ninety tense minutes of end-to-end action, winner take all, then, finally, just when it seemed the U.S. and Algeria would be heading home with a 0-0 tie, Donovan strikes. In dramatic fashion. Goooooooooal!!!
The scene over here was unlike any past World Cups on foreign soil. Tens of thousands of U.S. fans made their way to Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Wednesday, and most of them were decked head to toe in red, white and blue. They waved flags and blew vuvuzelas and pounded on the U.S. bus when it arrived. That’s what Brazilians and Argentineans and Nigerians do. And now, we do it, too.
“We don’t get many moments like this,” said Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, who admitted he got choked up when Donovan scored. “I think it’s a sign that people are starting to pay attention. We always talk about the water level rising with soccer. Well, today the water rose.”
Why? What makes this World Cup different from others?
One reason, certainly, is ESPN, a master marketer. For most mainstream sports fans in America, ESPN is the seal of approval, the equivalent of an Oprah Book Club selection. If ESPN says it’s cool, then it’s cool. And the cable network has been bombarding viewers with slick South Africa ads for months. Not only that, it has been showing top-level soccer from Europe, so Americans are getting a clearer picture of what world-class players are supposed to look like.
Another reason is that Americans band together when they feel they’ve been cheated, and this team definitely was cheated by the referee from Mali who disallowed Maurice Edu’s game-winning goal against Slovenia. Nothing brings Americans together better than outrage, and they are outraged, which in and of itself is progress. There was a time, not so long ago, when nobody cared enough about soccer to get outraged no matter how bad the call was.
It also helped that the U.S. opened this World Cup against England on a Saturday afternoon. Ideal rival. Ideal time slot.
Finally, much credit for this buzz should go to the U.S. team itself. Unlike the bickering French and English, and petulant U.S. pro athletes in other sports, the U.S. soccer players have a tremendous team spirit, few egos, and their never-say-die attitude makes them a lovable bunch. From Tim Howard to Landon Donovan to Michael Bradley to Jozy Altidore to Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo, these guys do not quit. Not even when the clock said 90 minutes. They battled on, and were rewarded.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had tears streaming down his face when the game ended. He has been trying to sell soccer to America for three decades.
“The reason this game was the most important in our history was because at home people were tuned in in a way they’ve never been tuned in,” he said. “Was the Colombia game in ’94 very important? Sure. Was the (World Cup qualifying) game in ’89? Yes. But in ’89, the 30 of us and a few thousand knew. This is different. Everyone knows what’s going on.
“I don’t think we’re going to convert the American population overnight, but anybody that watched today’s game and can’t get excited about it, we’re not gonna win them over, I accept that. But I think we’ll win a lot of people over today.”
“It’s about time, baby,” Donovan said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for that. We want to do our part to grow the sport. I think tonight we did a lot.”
Does this mean all of a sudden NFL fans will switch over the MLS? No. But if they tune in every once in a while, or at the very least not scoff at it, that’s a start.