When the Americans let a very winnable game slip by against Ghana, I experienced a mixture of emotions. First, I was proud of our American boys for their valiant effort throughout the tournament. After all, my expectations were simply for them to advance beyond the group stage, and everything beyond that would be a bonus. However, given the massive viewership of the game and the relatively easier bracket the Americans found themselves in, I was disappointed that they let such an opportunity get past them. Here was a chance for them to create a special bond with the American people, to galvanize the nation behind them in an unlikely deep tournament run, and to perhaps even give people like me, who was not yet born in 1980, our own Miracle on Ice (Pitch). It was not to be so, as questionable roster moves and the same old defensive lapses sent the Americans home.
Still, while the opportunity for a massive Cinderella run was left on the table, not all was lost. Soccer cynics may think that Donovan's winning goal against Algeria will now be just a fleeting moment, ultimately meaningless, much like Lebron's miraculous three point winner against the Orlando Magic in 2009. I will have to disagree: I think that moment, celebrated by so many throughout the nation, can be a turning point, even if it is a small one, for American soccer. While I do not follow soccer religiously (basketball and football are and always will be my first loves), I keep up with it more so than the average American, and I can say confidently that while attempts to declare soccer is "here," meaning "ready to overtake the American sports conscious over others," are always tiresome and overly ambitious, soccer has been here for quite a while. Soccer will mostly likely never be as popular as football, basketball, and baseball. That is fine. That in no way means that the sport has not slowly but surely grown in popularity throughout my lifetime. Many Americans may simply be unaware of it, but I have not only seen more and more people my age pay attention to the English Premiership, I have seen steady fans of MLS teams. The MLS has quietly grown the past several years, and while the teams are not even close to being as valuable or profitable as their counterparts in the NFL or NBA (or even NHL, for that matter), it seems to have carved itself a nice niche market. I was skeptical that little gambits like bringing David Beckham over would do much of anything, as if so many soccer supporters were desperately hoping that the sport would just explode uncontrollably throughout the nation, but soccer's steady steps have been there. America is a large and diverse country, and to say that a sport with such worldwide appeal could never succeed here is to be presumptuous, no matter how silly the "Soccer is HERE!" declarations are.
Thus, I look at this American World Cup team, and Donovan's goal in particular, as not something that will set off big and immediate fireworks for soccer in a soccer-vacant country. If that was the case, I would agree with the cynics that this would constitute a fleeting moment. I look at this run as something that continues to build on the foundation that has slowly been constructed the past one or two decades. For sure, many USA fans became bandwagon fans this World Cup and probably don't have any idea what offsides is. However, you have to start somewhere, and as the video that was posted earlier on BON shows, soccer has worked itself into the minds of the American conscious as something relevant, not something that is just for foreign folks. Lastrow, among his many excellent World Cup posts, discussed USA's shining moment here, and while I cannot personally put that moment anywhere near the moment when Vince Young crossed the goalline in the endzone, I understand that Donovan's goal had nearly universal American appeal. While Texas fans and most Texas residents (and those who simply despised USC) erupted in celebration after Young gutted the Trojans, there were undoubtedly many crushed people across the country: USC fans, OU fans, jealous Aggies and Tech fans, etc. Some were also probably heavily confused, such as Cal fans, who did not know if they should cheer for the fall of Troy or be angry that the "whining" Mack Brown held the crystal ball. For Donovan's goal, there was no confusion: If you are an American, you celebrated that goal. No questions asked. From bars across the country to people like me who watched alone via Internet stream, wild celebration ensued.
As a Korean-American, I am aware of how a World Cup moment can change the sport for a country. In 2002, Korea made an unlikely run to the semifinals in front of their home crowd, and even granting Korean people's rather irregular amount of nationalism, the massive fan support was something to behold. I remember getting up at odd hours of the morning (or simply staying up) with my family to watch these games, and amused as I was to see my normally chill parents jump for joy for Korea, it was a testament to the appeal of the sport and how it can unite a country. If you have never seen Korea's "sea of red," it's pretty impressive:
Imagine a group of half a million Koreans in a city square watching the game on the big screen. Even three years later, when I visited Korea for a summer, I could see the after effects of their World Cup run. More kids wanted to play the sport, more people cared, and more people paid attention to the national team. I am not saying we will see a similar sea of red and blue for America, because Americans tend to like watching in bars or at home and not in the oppressive heat, but this World Cup success, however small it was, can no doubt push the sport further in this country. Ironically, the Americans made it further in that 2002 World Cup and were only derailed from making the semifinals by Oliver Kahn and Germany (and a missed handball call), but I feel like this World Cup, with the American team winning in dramatic fashion and overcoming not one but two robbed goals, resonated much more with the American people. Even foreigners commented that the Americans truly seemed to enjoy playing with each other and give their best effort, quite unlike some superstar-riddled European teams.
Did an opportunity slip away? Without a doubt. This team could have accomplished much more. But rather than dwell on that, I'd like to focus on what they did accomplish: They made Americans believe they were never down and out and they made Americans across the country pay attention. That may be too small a step for soccer enthusiasts just itching for the sport to take the country by storm and see our elite athletes play in it, but the sport has been going slow and steady for a while now, neither as fast as optimists want or as dead as cynics think. I am fine with another step, because I have little doubt there will be more.