Here’s a story U.S. soccer fans tell themselves every four years. It’s a classic underdog tale of a sport that’s perpetually on the verge of breaking big, a game that, someday, won’t just be the world’s game, but America’s, too. This story is based on one simple fact: History shows that the better the U.S. national team does at the World Cup, the more people tune in and, subsequently, the more popular soccer becomes. And so, every four years, these fans hope that this will be the year the U.S. makes it all the way to the World Cup final and an NFL Sunday–size audience gets irreversibly hooked on soccer, propelling it into contention for the title of ”America’s game.” If you believe in the sport, this isn’t a fantasy – it’s only a matter of time.
The demographics are already shifting in soccer’s favor. The game is now the second most popular sport in the U.S. among 12- to 24-year-olds – a popularity fueled by the millions of kids who play at the youth level and the many millions addicted to the FIFA video game franchise. The number of Americans watching the last World Cup final approached 25 million, beating out the typical World Series or NBA finals game. And it’s not just the World Cup that has Americans paying attention: Not long ago, the only way to catch an English Premier League match was to wake up at odd hours to watch a grainy PBS feed, but last year, NBC, Fox, and ESPN engaged in a bidding war for the rights to televise the league in the U.S. (NBC won them for $250 million over three years.) On any given Saturday, it’s now possible to watch more English, Spanish, and Italian soccer in Dayton, Ohio, than it is in London, Madrid, or Milan. If the U.S. somehow reaches the World Cup final on July 13, it’s not hard to imagine 50 million or more people glued to TVs across the country.
“HISTORY SHOWS THAT THE BETTER THE U.S. NATIONAL TEAM DOES AT THE WORLD CUP, THE MORE PEOPLE TUNE IN AND, SUBSEQUENTLY, THE MORE POPULAR SOCCER BECOMES.”
So is this year’s team the one to take America – and soccer in America – across the line? U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann, former coach of the German national team and 1995 runner-up for FIFA World Player of the Year, does have the squad looking better than ever, in large part because of the promising crop of young players he’s recruited. Since taking over in 2011, Klinsmann has led a global search for U.S.-eligible talent – players with dual citizenship – convincing young German-, Icelandic-, and Mexican-Americans to commit to the U.S. He has also continued to develop the feeder relationship between the national team and Major League Soccer (MLS), which has provided new homegrown starters in Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, and Graham Zusi.
Last fall, this influx of fresh talent helped the U.S. finish atop its qualifying group, while nemesis Mexico foundered, barely squeaking into the tournament after a playoff match. But then the U.S. suffered a bad draw, landing in the so-called Group of Death, which includes a formidable German team; Portugal, which features the world’s best striker, Cristiano Ronaldo; and Ghana, the team that knocked us out of the tournament in both 2006 and 2010. The early odds out of Europe, where betting on soccer is almost as popular as the game itself, have the U.S. as 100–1 to win the tournament, slightly ahead of Ecuador and Ivory Coast. (Brazil, the host country, are 3–1 favorites.) Just making it out of the group stage in second place would be a major accomplishment.
So what’s possibly the best World Cup team the U.S. has ever fielded could be undone by a bad-luck draw. But in a sense, this is a rebuilding year anyway. The U.S. Soccer Federation has already signaled as much by extending Klinsmann’s contract through the next World Cup, Russia 2018. This is likely the last World Cup for team fixtures Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, and Landon Donovan, but the majority of other starting field players are under 30 years old. That bodes well for 2018.
“THE U.S. DOES HAVE ONE SIGNIFICANT ADVANTAGE OVER ITS GROUP-STAGE COMPETITORS: MORE THAN 180,000 AMERICANS HAVE PURCHASE TICKETS FOR MATCHES IN BRAZIL.”
Since taking over as coach in 2011, Klinsmann has said that he doesn’t just want to play the kind of workman-like soccer that the U.S. has been known for in the past – he wants the team to possess the ball and play with flow and tempo. But that evolution has been slow in coming, and the U.S. team has played its best under Klinsmann when it employs the same formula it has for years: letting the other team control the ball and then lighting up the counterattack. It’s a style that’s both nerve-racking (because the opponent is threatening to score more often than you are) and thrilling (because when you do break, it happens suddenly).
“You will not mistake the U.S. for Spain this summer,” says U.S. national team veteran and World Cup commentator Alexi Lalas, “but the team can find some real joy with its tried-and-true method.”
The U.S. does have one significant advantage over its group-stage competitors: More than 180,000 Americans have purchased tickets for matches in Brazil, making the tournament the second straight World Cup for which Americans have bought more tickets than any other nonhost nation. (To put this in perspective: Only 56,000 tickets have been sold in England, the birthplace of soccer.) The American Outlaws, the largest U.S. supporters group, has two 767s’ worth of rabid fans ready to pack stadiums and provide the closest thing to a home-field advantage you could possibly get in a place like Manaus, Brazil, where the U.S. will play Portugal.
But the real crowds to pay attention to will be those at sports bars across America as the tournament goes on. Even though what they’re likely to witness is “valiant in defeat” rather than “assured glory,” the closer the U.S. gets to making it out of the group, the more Americans will tune in and fall in love with the game – ensuring an even bigger draw next time out.