American Ambassadors

Let’s never do that again.

For about 80 minutes yesterday, the USMNT made their supporters fret, sweat, and bite their nails. It is, bar none, the most anxiety I’ve ever felt during a soccer match. And the first half was tame. It wasn’t until, in the span of three minutes, Thomas Muller and Asamoah Gyan scored, that the US was in any real danger. One more goal, at that stage, would have sent the Yanks back home.When safety finally arrived, it wasn’t an American goal but a Portuguese one. Cristiano Ronaldo’s rebound goal gave Portugal a 2-1 lead and eased American fears of Ghana and tiebreakers.

Some 20 hours have passed, and I think I’ve finally recovered. The U.S. have escaped the group of death. On Tuesday, they will face Belgium, but let’s acknowledge what they’ve accomplished already. In exceeding expectations and reaching the knockout rounds, the USMNT have done done their sport a massive favor.

It’s as if we’ve had 10 consecutive nights of Landon’s goal (against Algeria in 2010). And that means the sport is in a different place. Would that trend line be a little higher and a little steeper if we get through? The answer is yes. And we’re confident that will happen … To be able to keep that level of interest for another four, five, six and hopefully more days, would be great for the sport.

That’s Sunil Gulati, head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, on the importance of advancing. The World Cup is treated differently in America than in any other country; it is both a massive sporting event and a referendum on the sport’s existence. No one uses the Olympics to opine on the lasting appeal of swimming or snowboarding, and somehow I doubt that the popularity of soccer is called into question with every German appearance in the World Cup. But every four years the U.S. media uses the tournament as a springboard for columns and debates on “how soccer has made it” and “why soccer will never make it.”

And so the USMNT has something of a dual task with each World Cup. Its success brings it closer to the goal of one day winning a World Cup, but it also advances the sport as a whole. They are ambassadors for soccer as much as players. And so when you talk about Landon Donovan scoring against Algeria, it’s not merely that it got the U.S. to a round of 16 loss against Ghana. Landon Donovan’s goal brought the U.S. 19.4 million viewers on ABC and Univision, the most-watched soccer game in history at the time.

That record was broken by the Spain-Netherlands Final in 2010. It was broken again by the group stage match Portugal just this week. 24.7 million viewers watched the 2-2 draw on Sunday, despite the fact that it was on ESPN instead of ABC. A 4 PM Tuesday kickoff probably won’t be nearly as generous to the Walt Disney Company, but the USMNT, in escaping the group of death, has bought one more massive audience and another 5 days in the national consciousness. The impact of that is hard to judge, but I don’t think it can be overstated.


One thought on “American Ambassadors

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Expectations | Clever Through Balls

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