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July 7, 2014

TOM LINDLEY: U.S. loss on World Cup pitch was a win back home

The 2014 World Cup is over for America.

The United States was knocked out in the Round of 16 by Belgium, 2-1, in a match with extra time that was intoxicating and crushing.

The U.S. team was oh so close. That’s how sports go: One day you’re fighting for victory, the next you belong to history.

But, despite goalkeeper Tim Howard’s remarkable performance, the game perhaps will be remembered not so much as a loss but for what it did for the future of the sport back home.

Did the U.S. team permanently plant soccer in the American psyche, or was our enthusiasm just a midsummer aberration? Were we watching history being made, or was it just a moment for histrionics?

It serves no purpose to offer a quick answer. But there did seem to be something different about our country’s reaction to a game whose provenance long belonged to those living “over there.” For once, it seemed, U.S. fans were the ones adopting the established cultural and social ways of others, rather than exporting theirs to faraway lands.

For me, even at an advanced age and a soccer novice, watching was a strange experience. Probably like many others, I got excited by the fierce competition, even though I knew so little about the game, its strategies, rules or players. Surprisingly, not understanding what it means to be offsides or how substitutions work didn’t keep me or other newcomers from enjoying the game.

Certainly nationalism was a big contributor to the crowds and interest. It was refreshing to see Americans rallying instead of squaring off politically.

It seemed easier to accept the free-spirit practice of face painting and wearing colorful garb, long practiced by supporters of other countries’ teams. And, most definitely, the U.S. fans’ rhythmic chant of “I believe that we will win .” — borrowed from the bleachers at the U.S. Naval Academy — was a classic. The World Cup was pure fun.

The question becomes whether U.S. soccer can build upon that interest, or if the game returns to hibernation until the next World Cup rolls around in 2018? There’s no way to maintain the current fever, but soccer needs to devise marketing strategies on how to grow its base.

Where do we, as fans, turn? To the men’s and women’s professional leagues? To leagues overseas? To college soccer?

It’s apparent that soccer has a serious fan base among young people — and not just males. Women of all ages  rooted on the American team.

This stands in stark contrast to a moment I recall from years ago, as soccer was being introduced into the amateur sports scene. The sport was met with disdain — especially from those running youth football. Bumper stickers appeared around town that read: “Soccer is a foreign disease.”

Not only was there resistance to the introduction of a new sport, it was under attack by a generation that saw it as a threat to a valued American tradition — that other game called football.

That episode may serve as an example of how attitudes change, however gradual as it may be.

Part of the explanation for our reluctance or resistance to adopting a new sport may rest with this country’s isolation from much of the rest of the world. Oceans do more than separate us geographically; they’ve kept us apart culturally.

But a wave of technology, via the Internet and social media, have brought us together in ways previously unimaginable. Soccer seems poised to benefit from emerging possibilities. And who better than youth — the new audience — to adopt a new way of doing things?

Old barriers to soccer are coming down. It’s clear that the U.S. men’s national team caught captured imagination and spirit of an intrigued sporting public. Soccer’s future here could be big, if those who say “I believe” demonstrate that they do.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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