Archived Story

Underdog status raises US fans interest in soccer

Published 10:37am Monday, June 23, 2014

Despite blowing what would have been one of the greatest wins in Team USA history yesterday against Portugal, the hometown team’s showing in the World Cup this month is stirring up an incredible frenzy in what has generally been a soccer apathetic country.

Soccer, or football as its known everywhere else, is fanatically popular worldwide thanks to both the British and French colonial empires introducing the game to the people groups they dominated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Later on, FIFA, which despite its reputation as a hopelessly corrupt institution, has done a stellar work in promoting the sport worldwide though the World Cup and other means.

But for a variety of reasons soccer never seemed to catch on in the US, until recently. Though the US has qualified for every Cup since 1990, and had competitive showings in 1994 and 2002, there was never much hysteria surrounding any of those campaigns. While I was an avid sports fan for many years growing up, I have no recollection of ever watching a World Cup game or following the tournament in any fashion.

Domestically, soccer has traditionally had little appeal beyond parents looking for an easy way to keep their kids occupied after school and on weekends. Major League Soccer, for example, is an afterthought for most sports fans seeking entertainment, and trails other second-tier sports such as NASCAR and golf in popularity.

This begs the question of how a sport that is given so little attention at home has generated such hoopla when transplanted onto the global stage? It’s an incredible moment when people who never otherwise play or watch a minute of soccer (like myself) dress up in Uncle Sam attire and cheer wildly every time the US scores a goal as if the Vikings had just won the Super Bowl.

The tide began to shift in the 2010 World Cup, when the US took 12th place with a likeable cast of characters including Landon Donovan. Building off of this, I suggest three hypotheses for this nascent US obsession with soccer: 1) Team USA is now consistently competitive enough to warrant the attention and the subsequent bandwagon jumpers 2) European soccer leagues are soaring in popularity in the US among yuppies looking for a new way of being cool, and 3) it’s one of the few international sports where the US is not the hands on favorite to win every time.

Though the answer lies somewhere therein, I’m leaning toward number three as the main driver of excitement in this World Cup. The US’ placement in the notorious “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal and Ghana made the team instant underdogs, but a clutch win over Ghana and a great performance against Portugal – now obscured by giving up a tying goal in stoppage time – has given fans reason to be excited amid low expectations.

The team also lacks a true superstar. While Clint Dempsey is no slouch, he is nowhere near the caliber of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. This adds to the nationalistic appeal of Team USA, as it is a squad that demographically represents the US population and is a breath of a fresh air from the ego-driven, superstar model that pervades our other main domestic sports leagues.

So even though I likely won’t watch another soccer game until the 2018 World Cup, I, like the 11 million other US fans that tuned in to watch the Ghana match last week, can go to sleep at night feeling more patriotic, civilized and cultured for immersing myself for a month in the alternate universe of international football.

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