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July 03, 2014 7:41 am

COLUMN LIKE I SEE 'EM: A brief recap of the World Cup

Written by Dante Geoffrey

Well, that’s it. The Americans were ousted from the World Cup in the first stage of the knockout round.

But that doesn’t mean it’s over. Personally, I know I’ll be doing what I can to keep the spirit of the 2014 World Cup alive.

The trick now is to see how far the USNMT’s performance pushed soccer in this country. I know it’s a tired topic, but the gap between futbol’s immense worldwide popularity and America’s tepid appreciation for the sport is too wide to ignore.

As far as the 2014 team goes there wasn’t much more American fans (and non-fans) could ask for, and don’t you dare give me that “but there’s no action and it’s low scoring” garbage. You’re the same person who says the San Antonio Spurs aren’t a fun team to watch and that foreplay is unnecessary.

Even if you only watched the United States’ group stage games there was plenty of storylines, drama and genuine intensity to satiate any hungry sports fan.

But it was Tuesday’s after-dinner knockout match versus Belgium that would be what we remembered most.

There were three outcomes for the US men’s team coming into the round of 16, and all three carried a different affect on this still-burgeoning nation of soccer fans.

1) The United States wins. No matter the score (1-0 or 6-1) the country would go nuts for a quarterfinals experience, far surpassing the expectations of the team least-expected to survive the “Group of Death.”

The U.S. made the quarterfinals three tournaments ago when it beat Mexico 2-0 in the round of 16 before falling 1-0 to Germany. But unlike in 2002, the world wasn’t incredulous when we (yes, in this case I can use “we”) beat Ghana, drew with Portugal and played Germany tight in a 1-0 loss.

After the U.S. was eliminated in 2002 BBC writer Sean Wheelock (skillfully) wrote that America’s achievement “finally showed the planet that the U.S. are capable of playing quality football at the highest level.” So this is something we (and by we I mean people who have followed soccer very closely, which does not include me) have known for 12 years. Which means that while a quarterfinals appearance in 2014 would have still been a pleasant surprise, it wouldn’t carry the same Wow! factor that it did in 2002.

The 2014 Yanks in the round of eight wouldn’t have made them the 2006 George Mason Patriots of the World Cup, it would have made the U.S. one of a handful of good but not great teams that, at worst, overachieved to make it that far.

B) The United States loses a close, entertaining game. At least they made it out of the group stage, fans would say. And at least they didn’t get embarrassed. Overall, the fans that were gained just from the team making it to the round of 16 outweighs the loss of fans that check out immediately when their team loses. Even a close loss would be a net win for U.S. soccer.

III) The United States gets blown out. All of the momentum and good vibes created during their escape from Group G would be dashed. Fans would assume the Ghana win and Portugal tie were flukes and that the U.S. crashed down to earth so hard it killed all hope that almost-fans would turn to diehards,

Scenario 1 was clearly the ideal, but so long as the U.S. avoided Scenario III, this World Cup would have to be judged as a net win for the Americans — both its players and fans. Tuesday’s 2-1 loss was disappointing but it was exciting, and the “I believe that we will win!” chant was strong until the 120nd minute.

While I love all of the support the U.S. team has received during the World Cup, it’s important that home fans channel their energy properly.

After Tuesday’s loss it’s easy to say the Americans were just one bounce of the ball away (that magnificent set piece to Dempsey in the second extra time period hasn’t stopped playing on a loop in my head) from sending the match into penalties. But without Tim-Bleeping-Howard we wouldn’t even have been able to enjoy the millions of “what if” conversations that will be had throughout this week.

Howard, 35, was absolutely outstanding. His 16 saves were the most ever for an American keeper and the most in a World Cup match since 1966 (according to ESPN).

Without Howard’s brilliance we might be talking about Scenario III, which leads down a dark path of fans being upset they ever got tricked into liking soccer in the first place. There would be soccer backlash, which would be bad for the U.S. product but good for futbol hipsters who want to be the only ones wearing red, white and blue scarves.

It’s likely Tuesday’s game, in which he was awarded the Man of the Match award, was Howard’s last in a World Cup. His performance will not get the recognition it deserves, and we will all forget it all too soon. Howard threw a two-hitter with 16 strikeouts and lost.

Let’s take a moment now, while it’s still in our minds, to appreciate how one man nearly carried our country’s team above and beyond.

And though Howard may not be the man between the pipes when 2018 rolls around, the U.S. still has a lot to offer, and we caught a promising glimpse of that this tournament.

Julian Green is 1-for-1. He entered the game, waved his foot, and the ball appeared in the back of the net. He is 19 years old. He is probably the best soccer player ever.

While Green was the only American player to get his name on the score sheet, it was DeAndre Yedlin who coaxed the word “man-crush” out of me on Twitter midway through Tuesday’s match. This player of short stature and the fleetest of feet provided an instant impact every time he came onto the pitch. He didn’t start any of the U.S.’s four games but made his presence known within minutes of entering each game. And now I want to watch Seattle Sounders games.

Yedlin’s playing time against Belgium was not by design, but give credit to head coach Jurgen Klinnsman for trusting the 20-year-old when Fabian Johnson went down with a hamstring injury.

Klinnsman, 49, is perhaps the USNMT’s brightest young star. The German-born coach was questioned after every one of his decisions, none more than when he left now-forgotten ex-star Landon Donovan off the 23-man World Cup roster.

But do you have any questions now? The United States clearly didn’t make it out of the group stage on talent alone. It took tactics and it took the right motivation.

Remember the uproar caused when Klinnsman said it wasn’t realistic to think USA could win the tournament? Yeah, I don’t remember that anymore, either.

He seemed to bring the right attitude and approach to his players while being one of the most likable coaches to watch on the sidelines and listen to in post-game interviews. That I can guarantee he’s wearing long white socks with Puma slip-ons right now just makes him even better.

Perhaps he was too cautious with Yedlin. If Johnson never goes down in the first half Yedlin might get less than 20 minutes of playing time versus Belgium. But again, give him credit for seeing how the kid played in the group stage and deferring to him rather than one of the other dozen veterans waiting for their chance in the knockout stage.

Which brings me to me.

For three straight World Cup cycles I have been on the sideline waiting for my chance to fully submerge myself in soccer. Since I first closely followed a World Cup in 2006 I’ve been aware of how exciting soccer can be, but haven’t figured out how to meet the excitement halfway.

For brief moments I would feel a part of the team, deeply invested in the United States team and the improbable run it was attempting. But this devotion, like with most Americans, did not translate to other soccer leagues in the non-World Cup years. There were always too many variables, and too many differences between professional soccer and other professional sports I’ve grown accustom to in the U.S.

Which league do I follow? The English Premier League is the world’s consensus for best organized professional soccer. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are some of the biggest team names in professional soccer, yet the two biggest individual names play in Spain.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi play for Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, respectively (though Ronaldo does it much more handsomely), of Spain’s “La Liga.” Would the NFL be the world’s best football league if Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers played in Canada?

Then of course there’s this country’s Major League Soccer, a league that persevered through more than a decade of mockery and scorn to become a destination for (admittedly, mostly aging) international stars to play. The MLS caters to American fans well in that it organized its teams into Eastern and Western conferences and ends its season with a familiar playoff system, much like other U.S. sports but unlike soccer overseas.

My hangup is probably one all too common among American sports fans such as myself. Why doesn’t soccer just make it easy and consolidate every good player in the same league like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL do?!

Because football (not football) is a worldwide sport, and the money and opportunity comes from far more places than it does for America’s four major sports.

I realize it’s upon me, not FIFA or any other governing body, to learn to appreciate soccer.

Soccer doesn’t come bundled in a neat, tidy little bow that’s as easy to follow as the NFL, the most fan-friendly (and, I’m sorry, dumbed-down) league we have (and one I eagerly consume). Soccer is nuance. Soccer is a slow-burn. Soccer is the tortured bridge to your favorite song that steadily builds before erupting into a euphoric blend of beauty, grace and above all, relief.

Here’s the most telling sign that this year’s World Cup had an impact on me and, I hope, other U.S. sports fans waiting to be turned into futbol fanatics: Tuesday’s game really, really hurt.

I felt the loss to Belgium. Hard. It wasn’t quite what I felt when the 49ers lost to Seattle in the NFC Championship game, but I hustled out of the bar before there was any chance I’d be seen feeling emotions and the rest of my week will have the invisible cloud of disappointment over it.

And you know what? I love that it did that to me.

Anything that can make you feel that sad is worth keeping around, because it means the happiness it can cause is that much greater.

I want to chase this feeling, whether it be via the MLS, EPL or America’s next friendly. I want to chase this feeling like Yedlin chases through balls down the wing.

Both the U.S. and I are a long way from experiencing our greatest soccer moment, but we can sense that it is closer than ever before, and we wish you will be a part of whatever happens next.

Also, good luck to late-blooming sportswriter Ann Coulter in her bid to host the 2026 World Cup in the part of her body from which she pulls her thoughts.

1 Comment

  • Comment Link July 03, 2014 2:41 pm posted by Alan Tupper

    Nicely written, Dante!

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