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Thursday, July 10, 2014

I Still Believe

Is the future bright for US Soccer?
I'm probably in the same boat as a lot of American sports fans. I tune in to soccer once every four years, when the World Cup rolls around. So this summer, like clockwork, I tuned in, expecting to pay a bit of attention until the US made their exit, only to tuck it back into the recesses of my fandom, to be called up again four years later.

When I turned on the first match this summer - I don't remember which one it was, but it wasn't one of ours - a funny thing happened. I found that I I got was what going on a lot more. I was finding interest in what was going on over the entire field, not just at the goal. I can even find enjoyment in a game that ends 0-0 - except for that whole pesky tie thing. Perhaps it's four more years of sophistication as a sports fan, and with it four more years following analogous sports like hockey, basketball, and lacrosse that I follow more frequently. Perhaps it's even the soccer I do catch - I currently work at a school where soccer is the primary fall sport, and I graduated from another who I got to see in the postseason this past year. But while I used to view the sport of 89 minutes of putzing around in the middle of the field punctuated by a few scores, I can now find appreciation, even excitement, in all facets of the game. And one thing that has never changed is that I enjoy watching with people who enjoy watching. I've had three such occasions with this World Cup - one was being at a conference where lunch happened to largely coincide with USA-Germany, another was with friends in Virginia, and the third was catching some in a bar in Ocean City. I watched the second semifinal here at home and I'm looking forward to the consolation game and the final this weekend, even though the US now long since eliminated.

And it's not just me. Viewership for the US games is up all over the country; social media tell a similar tale. And despite exiting in the round of 16 (can I call it the Sweet 16? Sorry, American.) for the second consecutive World Cup, this one felt like a bit more. Like our guys could play with anyone and maybe, just maybe, with some healthy support on site and on the homefront, we could will them to just one more goal, one more victory. And it seems, at least for now, instead of retreating back into the every-four-years shell many American sports fans do with soccer, there may be some lingering interest, an interest which should be easier to quell with high quality international soccer becoming more readily available on American television.

This is where I punch well above my weight class and make a comparison that I'm not sure I have the knowledge base to, but hear me out. As the brass (leadership, not horns) of Carolina Crown discuss the rise to their recent championship, they talk about how they started out with no true first trumpets. As they continued to build the program, they were able to bring in better students, then capitalize on that success, and so on. Might we be headed that direction with US soccer? The trajectory certainly seems right. And while I don't think we will ever host the world's best professional league, we're putting more American players into those leagues to play with and against the best in the world. Perhaps the youth soccer era is starting to pay dividends, and next World Cup, or several down the line, the US will edge ever closer to the top of the mountain.

I'm not saying I've become a huge soccer convert. Hell, I'm still calling it soccer while the rest of the world scowls. But I don't think it'll take me another four years to tune back in.
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