By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Marcus Hahnemann spent the past two World Cups with the U.S. national team, which is a huge honor for any player, but also a rather isolating experience. Busy schedules and security concerns mean players, despite being the central figures in the tournament, don’t experience much of what makes the World Cup such a big deal.
“Then we see these glimpses of the fan zones, people getting together to experience the game, going nuts in bars, the different atmospheres,” said Hahnemann, the Seattle Sounders goalkeeper. “We were blown away by that, because that was something we didn’t expect to have.”
On Tuesday, Hahnemann and several of his Sounders teammates got to be a part of that fan experience, mingling with the 4,650 fans at the CenturyLink Field Events Center who took an afternoon off and/or a really long lunch break to cheer on the U.S. in a round-of-16 game against Belgium.
Ultimately, despite a historical 16-save performance by American goalkeeper Tim Howard, and despite a very impressive outing by young Sounders right back DeAndre Yedlin, America’s run in this World Cup ended with a 2-1 loss to Belgium, with all three goal coming in extra time after a scoreless 90 minutes. Yet even if the raucous weekday crowd didn’t go home happy, it was a memorable — and tense — afternoon that left American fans both frustrated and at the same time proud of the effort they had seen from a team that was considered a heavy underdog to even get to this point in the tournament, let alone beat a talented Belgian squad.
Exactly how World Cup success will or won’t affect the game’s growth in this country is a topic that has been debated in this column and many other places, but regardless of your views on Major League Soccer’s relevance, or America’s growth as a soccer-playing nation, what this World Cup and others before it have show is that American sports fans love a big occasion. And few things in sports, even in a country where soccer is still a ways down in the pecking order, are as big as the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Add to the mix that the American squad is captained by Sounders forward Clint Dempsey, and that Yedlin was a surprise first-half sub because of an injury to Fabian Johnson, and this Seattle viewing party had a special kind of energy to it.
Particularly thrilling to local fans was the standout play of Yedlin, who for much of the game proved to be one of his team’s most dangerous players. Every blazing run down the right flank and every bit of praise from ESPN commentators was greeted with big cheers, though none were quite loud enough to will one of Yedlin’s teammates into finishing one of his tantalizing crosses. For a 20-year-old playing in the biggest game of his life, Yedlin looked nothing like a player who was intimidated by the moment.
“He doesn’t have that,” Hahnemann said. “He’s got that sort of flash, which is kind of annoying sometimes. But that’s what you need, you need that confidence. DeAndre’s probably a little bit over-confident, and that’s the way I was when I was younger, too. People thought I was cocky or whatever, but you need that to have confidence, and it’s the right balance of where you need to be. He’s been so good for us, and he brought that to the national team, too. It’s disappointing they’re out.”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who was in attendance along with general manager/minority owner Adrian Hanauer and sporting director Chris Henderson, also praised Yedlin’s World Cup performance.
“DeAndre did well,” Schmid said. “It’s a great experience for him, something he can build on for his future. It’s something you can talk about, but you don’t know what it’s like until you’re actually in it, and I thought he came in today and gave the team some life on the right-hand side. I think DeAndre represented himself very well.”
Immediately after the game, Schmid was about as disappointed as you’ll ever see a coach who is about to welcome back two of his top players. While Yedlin and Dempsey will likely be back in Seattle in the next couple days, Schmid isn’t going to rush them back into action, meaning you won’t likely see them in this weekend’s game at Vancouver.
“It’s not only a physically-draining tournament, it’s very emotionally draining,” Schmid said. “Generally what I’ve found is that after you go through a World Cup experience as a player or a coach, you’re a little melancholy when you come back. It’s like the air has been completely let out of the balloon, physically and emotionally. We’ll just have to see. It’s important for us to make sure they’re right for us for the rest of the year.”
The air was also taken out of the CenturyLink Field Events Center by a pair of Belgian goals, then the place came roaring back to life when 19-year-old Julian Green scored in his World Cup debut to give the U.S. hope. Ultimately, America’s World Cup ended in disappointment, but in Seattle and so many other places around the country, it didn’t end without a pretty good party.
“People coming down here today, it’s awesome, and it gives you that feeling… everything you’re doing is worthwhile,” Hahnemann said. “Everybody is behind you, it’s an amazing feeling. It shouldn’t really matter that people back home are supporting you, but it does. It drives you further along, it helps you in the games.”