June 29, 2010
11:29 AM: We’re out. We lost to Ghana. Two early goals: one at the beginning of the game and one at the beginning of overtime proved our undoing. Whatever issues lay at the root of our tendency to concede early goals went unresolved, if not unaddressed. Landon Donovan’s third goal of the tournament wasn’t enough to drag us through and our Round of 16 exit will go down as a disappointment. We played well enough, just not well enough to win.
The question now, of course, is ‘what’s next?’ It should really be ‘who’s next?’ Will Bob Bradley stay? Or will the USSF look to bring in a new coach? No decision will be made until after the tournament is over and both sides have had a few weeks to consider their options. Bradley’s done enough to be offered an extension if he wants it, but it’s difficult to say if he would accept if offered. Sunil Gulati has himself expressed some disappointment in the Round of 16 exit. My gut feeling as of this moment is that Bradley will part ways with the National Team. I could very well be wrong, but after the fiasco that was the 2006 World Cup I think everyone will be hesitant to have a coach stay on for two cycles. Bob will land on his feet (whether that’s in MLS or Europe, I don’t know) and the USSF will botch the signing of another high-profile coach before bringing in Dominic Kinnear. The sun will rise and set, the moon will wax and wane, and so it goes.
That decision will be made soon enough, and I, frankly, can’t be bothered with speculation. That’s not the axe I’m here to grind. No, I’ve been doing some thinking about the culture and atmosphere that surrounds the advent of the World Cup in America. American soccer fans tend to fret over the popularity of the game in the States in the wake of the World Cup. Will this push us over the edge? Is this tournament going to push soccer into the same stratosphere occupied by the NFL, MLB and NBA? The answer is always ‘No’. The majority of the 19 million people who watched the US play Ghana will not rush out to buy season tickets to their local MLS sides. Many of them may not watch another game until the US kicks off in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo in 2014. That’s just the truth of the matter. I’m sure we’ll see a bump in interest for the rest of the season, and I’m sure that the US-Brazil game in August will be a near or total sell-out. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, expect one month long event to change the attitudes of 300 million people.
I’m reminded now of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Wave Speech’ from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the implications that arise when it is applied to American soccer post-World Cups. For those of you who haven’t read Dr. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or seen the film adaptation, I’ll reproduce the part of ‘The Wave Speech’ we’re
concerned with here:
“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Now, I’m not saying that the old guard of American sports represents the forces of ‘Old and Evil’, but it’s difficult not to spot parallels between the Cult of Soccer in modern America and the hippie zeitgeist of the 1960s that Thompson was writing about. Both were marginalized and mocked in their infancy by established powers, before earning some measure of respect over time. The difference, of course, is that the Cult of American Soccer will not outgrow itself; it is multi-generational and there is no need for our energy to come together in any kind of ‘long, fine flash’. Thompson’s wave may have been high and beautiful, but it did not return after breaking upon the rocks between the late 60s and early 70s.
I have the right kind of eyes – for my purposes – and I can see where the waves of American soccer have broken and rolled back during my lifetime: Stephen Appiah’s penalty-kick in 2006, Torsten Frings’ handball in ’02, Iran’s second goal in ’98, Leonardo’s elbow on Tab Ramos in ’94. But, though it breaks, the wave returns every four years – each time stronger and more forceful. Each time, the tide grows that much higher. That, I think, is our handle: we are past the point where anyone can argue whether or not soccer in America is here to stay. It is and all reasonable people know that. The question now is how much farther up the beach of American sports culture we can get the wave to travel before it retreats.
It’s impossible to say right now how much impact this World Cup, and the United States’ performance in it, will have in the long run. We have recently seen things that we are unaccustomed to seeing in relation to American Soccer: multiple ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated covers, hours of daily coverage on ESPN, covers of many major daily newspapers and there’s even been coverage of the possibility that Landon Donovan may have fathered an illegitimate child during his time in England. Tabloids! We’re in the tabloids now! That, my friends, is how you know you’ve truly made it. Nobody is asking the important question about Donovan’s dalliance, though. Twenty years from now, will Donovan’s kid choose to play for the US or England? But I digress…almost twenty million people watched the United States play Ghana, a huge number, to be sure. That’s progress. It’s debatable whether or not the US team itself has improved at a satisfactory rate, but damn near twenty million viewers for an afternoon game against Ghana? That’s progress. If nothing else – that is progress.
This wave broke when Asamoah Gyan blasted a volley over Tim Howard and into the American net. How far we made it before that happened will become more apparent as time passes. Landon Donovan is scheduled to be on Regis & Kelly tomorrow, if that matters. Interest will wane in the coming weeks, but card-carrying members of the Cult of American
Soccer can take comfort in the knowledge that the wave is gathering strength and will return again four years from now and four yearsafter that ad infinitum, more powerful each time.