Anybody who is so 1980s as to suggest that Americans don’t care about soccer was not tuned into ESPN or following Twitter on Tuesday night when the U.S. national team knocked off Mexico 2-0 to book a spot in the 2014 World Cup.
That fervent star-spangled sellout crowd at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, was as American as it gets. Those scarf-waving soccer junkies were as passionate and knowledgeable as Ohio State fans at a Buckeyes football game, and they gave the Mexican team the same kind of welcome they would give the hated Michigan Wolverines.
An hour before the game, they were chanting “ Dos a cero! Dos a cero!’’ — Two to zero, in Spanish, referring to the score by which the U.S. team had beaten Mexico the previous three times they played there, and, as it turned out, the same score by which they beat them Tuesday night.
Those fans were so wrapped up in World Cup qualifying that many of them stayed in the stadium after the match ended to watch the second half of the Honduras vs. Panama game on the video screen, as the United States needed Honduras to win or tie to secure the berth. In the final minutes, with the score tied 2-2, fans began chanting: “Blow the whistle! Blow the whistle!”
When the whistle blew, the U.S. players emerged from the locker room wearing “Qualified” T-shirts, and spraying bottles of champagne. It was the kind of scene once reserved for national teams of other countries. On Tuesday night, it looked very American.
Kobe Bryant, Billie Jean King and Reggie Bush were among the luminaries who posted shout-outs to the U.S. team on Twitter. Bush wrote: “Congrats to the USA Men’s Soccer Team qualifying for the 2014 World Cup! I will definitely be there to support.” And then he added: “Love the toughness by Landon Donovan to still compete in the match despite having severe pink eye! #builtfordtough
ESPN was on the scene all day, dissecting the Mexican team’s troubles, the regional standings and the U.S. lineup and tactics with the same seriousness and fancy graphics as they do the NFL and NBA playoffs. On Wednesday morning, the United States’ qualification led SportsCenter and highlights were replayed all day. There was also much discussion of Mexico slipping to fifth place and in serious danger of not qualifying.
The game drew a 1.9 overnight TV rating, the highest ever for a World Cup qualifier. Columbus drew the most TV viewers with a 5.1 rating. Next best? Miami! Where else? The Miami-Fort Lauderdale market came in at 3.3, followed by Buffalo, Dayton, Washington, San Diego, New York City, Seattle, San Antonio and West Palm Beach.
Miami has been among the top three audiences for World Cup soccer, Champions League and other international matches for the past decade.
Soccer is no longer a niche sport to be dismissed as boring and un-American. It is becoming more mainstream every day. A crowd of 67,385 showed up a few weeks ago for a Major League Soccer match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. Read that again. Slowly. A crowd of 67,385 for a regular-season MLS game. Yes, it was Clint Dempsey’s home debut, proving the point even more. The fans were not there to see Pélé or Lionel Messi. They were there to see a U.S.-born-and-bred star play in a domestic league game.