EIGHINGER: U.S. soccer needs a win on big stage to make people care

Posted: Jun. 24, 2014 6:31 pm Updated: Sep. 16, 2014 9:15 pm

I want to be a soccerhead. I really do.

I want to sincerely care about the sport on an international stage, other than once every four years when the World Cup rolls around and we all wrap ourselves in the red, white and blue -- until our national team loses some sort of heartbreaker and is eliminated somewhere in the early stages of the competition.

And then it's, "See ya in four more years."

Like most every other sports fan -- casual and otherwise -- I was captured by the exciting U.S. win over Ghana in our first match as part of the "Group of Death" that also includes traditional world powers Germany and Portugal.

(By the way, I love to say "Group of Death." My wife is ready to kill me after a week of hearing about little else but the "Group of Death." Not even the NFL, Major League Baseball or college football has a Group of Death, unless you count the Southeastern Conference.)

Then came the epic matchup against Portugal, the alleged No. 4-ranked team in the world, in our second game in the Group of Death fixture ("fixture" is European soccer-ese for "schedule.) Portugal features the electric Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year who is soccer's equivalent to LeBron James or Mike Trout.

If you are truly a soccer superstar, I have learned, you go by just one name. All of Brazil's players, for instance, go by just one name, monikers like Neymar, Hulk and Fred. Seriously, one Brazilian guy goes by Fred.

The game with Portugal was one that if the United States had won -- we tied, 2-2, in case you were on vacation to Mars the past week -- the sport would have automatically taken another major step in reaching "major" status in this country.

The U.S. team would have advanced from the Group of Death into the knockout round of 16. Now, we need to beat or tie No. 2-ranked Germany on Thursday in our final Group of Death experience to assure advancing. A loss means the bizarre World Cup tiebreaking procedure comes into effect, and the U.S. World Cup journey could end like it has in years past -- sooner than later.

For about 40 years, we have been hearing that soccer is the next big thing in this country. The sport has made incredible progress, but it still remains an afterthought for most -- until the World Cup rolls around and we all get excited for a couple of weeks, only to be disappointed by the eventual lack of U.S. success.

That last-second goal by Portugal on Sunday that forged the 2-2 tie and deprived the U.S. team -- and its fans -- the euphoria that appeared to be only moments away. The end of that match, as exciting, gut-wrenching and disappointing as it may have been, seemed to be a typical experience when it comes to our decades-old love/apathy toward soccer.

But unlike the recent World Cups, the U.S. team has a second chance to provide its fan base -- and millions of potential other followers who will jump on the bandwagon -- to experience that euphoria by beating (or at least tying) Germany.

The United States needs to win a major game on a major stage. Thursday could be its final chance until the 2018 World Cup. The TV numbers from the Portugal telecast indicate Americans are interested -- 24.7 million of them, which made it the most-watched soccer telecast in U.S. history, almost double the previous high in one of the earlier World Cups.

The stage is ready. All the U.S. team has to do is win (or at least get a bloody tie), and it will advance out of the Group of Death. The love affair between the sport and U.S. fans will officially begin. It will mean U.S. soccer is officially boffo box office. Parents will start naming their newborns after Clint Dempsey, and kids will all want a Tim Howard rookie card in their collections.

If the U.S. fails again to make a serious dent in the World Cup tournament, for many fans it will be the familiar, "See ya again in four years."

Either way, I'm going to miss the Group of Death.


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