Forget about how they did it. No, it wasn’t pretty, artful or even impressive, but that doesn’t matter now. Do you think the futbol-mad folks in Italy, Spain or England wouldn’t trade places with the United States right about now? In a Neymar nanosecond they would.
The U.S. went into the 2014 World Cup among the top 15-ranked teams. In spite of the fact that their ever-crafty coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, told us months ago that they had no chance to win the whole thing, they are still alive and kicking in Brazil. Meanwhile, a number of more prominent soccer powers are not. The U.S. managed to get out of the Group of Death with two higher-ranked teams. And somehow, despite getting outplayed by Ghana, playing horribly at the beginning and end against Portugal and getting dominated by Germany, the Yanks are in the knockout round against Belgium on Tuesday, July 1 at 4 p.m., EST.
“For us,” Klinsmann said, “we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”
Thus far, the U.S. men’s team has played three of a possible seven games. And either we’re dealing with a team that has yet to play its best (U.S. soccer viewpoint), or we’re looking at a middling team that has survived thanks to luck and the vagaries of the Round Robin system (many futbol experts).
Jurgen’s right, of course: They don’t stand a chance of winning. Regardless of how well they have or haven’t played — and they managed one shot on goal in 90-plus minutes against Germany — the U.S. men’s soccer team has nonetheless captured the attention of soccer fans, casual and otherwise, across this country. The television ratings for the games have been the best for a non-football event in the history of ESPN. If the U.S. somehow manages to get past Belgium, and it’s not impossible that they could, there is a chance they could face Argentina and Lionel Messi on July 5, a Saturday. Hold the BBQ and beer; fans will be inside watching the match.
We aren’t quite at the stage of giving everyone the day off to party and watch the game, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave state workers a little extra lunch time so they could watch the end of the Germany game. What cold-hearted employer will insist that his workers stay at their stations and prevent them from watching the quarterfinal against the Belgians? Boss-sanctioned or no, I predict viewing parties everywhere for the U.S.-Belgium match.
Indisputably, we are into it. Yes, there is a certain bandwagon effect. People are watching because, well, a lot of people are watching, and it’s fun. You can be sure viewership will drop dramatically once the United States is eliminated. And that’s the problem for Major League Soccer: Will the World Cup effect drive fan interest in professional soccer in this country, or will it ebb once the U.S. is out? A recent $600 million deal with ESPN and Fox is aimed at giving the league the money and exposure it needs to make soccer as much a part of the water-cooler conversation as baseball, basketball or football. But will it?
A recent article in The Street.com noted that five MLS teams have an average attendance that is larger than the average attendance of at least four Major League Baseball teams. The Seattle Sounders in 2013 averaged more fans in 2013 than all but three teams in MLB, including the Red Sox. There is fervent soccer interest in the Pacific Northwest, with well-drawing teams in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.
But that same article noted that selling interest in soccer during the World Cup is exponentially easier than after it has ended. It noted that a playoff game between Portland and Real Salt Lake last year was the least watched offering on ESPN for the week. It was beaten in the ratings by a re-run of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
That is the problem in a nutshell. We tune in when there’s a World Cup, because the whole world is watching. Soccer fervor persists beyond World and European Cup years in Europe. In January, Red Sox owner John Henry told a Boston Chamber of Commerce luncheon that a regular season matchup between Liverpool, the team he owns, and Manchester United drew one billion viewers worldwide.
We just don’t have that here. The United States has won four of the last CONCACAF Gold Cups. But CONCACAF covers national teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The only teams of any lasting consequence in the conference are the United States and Mexico. Most of those fans who gather for watch parties for the U.S.-Belgium match likely won’t tune in when Klinsmann’s boys play in (and probably win) the next CONCACAF tournament.
But we will tune in this week. And if the U.S. beats Belgium, look for American viewers in record numbers to watch again on Saturday. We’ll be back in 2018, too. It’s fan interest — or otherwise — during those other 47 months that makes it an uphill run up the pitch for soccer.