Like it happened just last week, I remember walking into the sports bar around 9 a.m. on a weekday; it had opened early for the special occasion. The place was packed, the noise at a high pitch when the game kicked off an hour later. Faces were painted. Flags waved. Uncle Sam was there. Two, actually.
United States vs. Algeria. World Cup.
The Americans went on to win 1-0 to advance to the second round four years ago, and strangers hugged and high-fived when Landon Donovan scored.
“U-S-A! U-S-A!” filled the bar in a joyous shout.
It didn’t feel like we were cheering for a game, team or sport. It felt like we were cheering for ourselves.
The quadrennial World Cup always feels different in America, which for me is part of the charm.
We are the outsiders when it comes to men’s international soccer, the most watched, followed, passionately held sport in the world. Us as the outlier is less and less so, gradually, inexorably, but it still is so. And it is humbling, in an oddly refreshing way.
The United States of America is rarely cast as an underdog in anything. From world wars to sports, we are accustomed to winning, to being the favorites. It is why so much of the rest of the world loves and admires us, or regards us with hatred or jealous loathing.
Because (with or without a giant foam finger), “We’re No. 1!” And never more than in sports, right?
Baseball is ours. It is America’s pastime. Japan has a prominent professional league, and the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are pipelines of talent, but the sport’s Mecca is Major League Baseball, and the bunting on Opening Day is red, white and blue.
Football is ours. The NFL is king, our most popular sport, no challengers anywhere else in the world. And Super Bowl Sunday is as national a holiday as anything we have.
Basketball is ours. It is becoming a global sport, booming in China, but the cause is the NBA, whose flagship stars from Michael Jordan to LeBron James have been the biggest sports stars in America.
Hockey? OK, that’s still Canada, but the United States trends upward, with the percentage of American players in the NHL (24.6) at an all-time high this season, and with the Rangers or Kings about to make this the 20th season in a row the Stanley Cup has resided in America, not in Canada.
The United States also has dominated the one international sporting competition arguably as big as the World Cup: the Olympics. Team USA’s all-time combined summer and winter overall medals and gold medals more than double anybody else’s.
We like our chances in individual sports, too. We have NASCAR racing. From Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods, we have led the way in golf. Men’s tennis lags at the moment, but Serena Williams is ours.
This might present an overall biased skew on America’s place in sports, but I think it accurately reflects our aggressive, almost jingoistic belief that, well … that “We’re No. 1!”
Then there’s men’s soccer, and the World Cup.
Here, we are what we are so rarely:
That isn’t so in women’s soccer, where the United States has won two World Cups and is presently ranked No. 1 in the world.
But it is so with the men. In the month-long World Cup starting this week, host Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain are the favored nations, whereas the United States is given 250-to-1 odds against winning, which ranks tied for 24th among 32 countries that qualified.
Still long way to go
The United States has been in every World Cup since 1990, when a 40-year drought ended, but the American men have since gotten as far as the quarterfinal round only once, in 2002.
Four years ago, the United States was eliminated in the Round of 16, and many experts doubt the Americans will get even that far this time, stuck in a tough first-round group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
The U.S. men are very good, ranked 14th in the latest FIFA world ranking, and seen as in good hands with coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the German soccer legend. But those 250-to-1 odds measure the distance the Americans still trail the world’s elite teams. (That’s perception, pending the reality set to play out.)
It probably is good for the collective American sports ego to play the underdog if only once every four years, and also to fathom how little “our” sports interest the majority of the globe that finds its obsession and passion in soccer.
Whether LeBron James or Tim Duncan prevail in the NBA Finals …
Who reaches the World Series …
Whether New York or Los Angeles wins the Stanley Cup …
The next Super Bowl champion …
These things are of largely parochial, backyard interest compared with the global fascination in the World Cup.
We’ll never match that global passion for soccer if only because our interests are so splintered, and that’s OK. It is not a shortcoming of ours that we don’t embrace soccer as a nation any more than it is a shortcoming of Brazil’s or England’s that they don’t worship Super Bowl Sunday.
Soccer is growing in the United States at all levels.
Hosting the 1994 World Cup directly helped birth Major League Soccer, now a mostly thriving league of 19 teams, with Miami to be the 20th if David Beckham can get a stadium built.
Four years ago, the second-round match against Ghana that eliminated the United States from the World Cup was the most-watched soccer game ever in America.
Only host Brazil has bought more tickets than the United States for this World Cup.
If only because more and more Americans are from countries where soccer is religion, the sport will grow bigger and bigger here. It already is huge in diverse South Florida, where international matches can fill the Dolphins’ stadium, and where four years ago the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market led the United States in World Cup TV ratings.
But for all of that, much of America still embraces the sport only once every four years and otherwise regards it casually and from a distance.
Soccer’s niche status was reflected recently when the veteran Donovan — all-time American leader in international goals — surprisingly was left off the U.S. World Cup roster. A comparable decision in Brazil or Germany would have set off a national firestorm. Here, it was big news to a small group and of little interest to most. Quoting a headline from the satirical, faux-news website The Onion: “Nation will always have fond, vague recollection of Landon Donovan.”
Once every four years, though, we unabashedly embrace soccer, piggyback onto the rest of the world’s passion and enjoy the World Cup ride as we root for ourselves in a different role:
The underdog Americans: Us against the world.