EDGAR ZUNIGA - Wednesday, September 11, 2013
It began in November 1989.
The seed was planted and buried deep in fertile American soil.
There were no signs of growth back then, but something stirred beneath the surface, nurtured by the sweat and tears of young Americans daring to dream the impossible ‘neath long, hot summer days on foreign land.
It began to take root in the consciousness of impressionable minds and core of young hearts in 1994, when the beautiful game was introduced to a bewildered nation, captivated by the amount of attention and love devoted to what seemed a simple game on the surface, but which was more complex than the average American could ever imagine.
Four more years of growth, stymied by the harsh reality that there was still more maturing to undergo.
Another four years. Lessons learned. New blood joined the Earth. Yet, they were not quickly subdued. And, south of the border they accepted-begrudging respect with the world as a witness.
Dos a Cero in Columbus.
Dos a Cero in South Korea.
A soccer nation rose from the Earth; reborn more than half a century later, scions of a once promising tribe that had lost its way. Reborn stronger than anticipated; relentless and bold.
Nothing was gifted. Every inch was earned. Aware of its own existence and potential, it became absorbed in what could be; impetuous and defying those that it would oppose.
Dos a Cero in Columbus, our fortress in the North.
Alas, nothing comes easy on the world's stage. Through constant pained disgrace, the burgeoning soccer nation learned the rules.
Respect is earned not taken. Keep evolving. Keep fighting for every inch.
Dos a Cero in Columbus. The legend grew.
Then came World Cup 2010.
USA vs. Algeria.
Where were you?
And while Ghana broke American hearts once again, the pain that you felt when the game was over was true.
This was more than just passing fascination with a team; this was to-the-core, love and passion for the Red, White and Blue.
While every year since Paul Caligiuri's "Shot heard 'round the world" has seen the support and love for Team USA strengthen and unite people from across the land, soccer has never been more visible in the US than it is today.
Something happened in 2013. From a false start in the World Cup qualifiers to the "Snow Game" in Colorado, to the first American Aztecaso to the core of El Tri and the impressive run to the Gold Cup title, to the streak that kept going and going, and another Dos a Cero in Columbus, securing a spot in Brazil.
Major League Soccer is more prevalent than ever before, drawing consistent crowds to more intricately designed soccer-specific stadiums. The excitement leading up to US matches, whether in the Gold Cup or in World Cup qualifiers, was undeniably palpable this summer with excitement usually reserved for the World Cup.
There is still a way to go before soccer gains a grip on mainstream media, but its growth is undeniable, inevitable and can no longer be ignored.
ESPN still wastes hours and hours on NFL coverage, discussing inconsequential minutia-months removed from the regular season. However, you have to admit that the coverage leading up to, during and after the US vs. Mexico World Cup qualifier in Columbus was impressive.
In addition, there are now so many options for a soccer-viewing audience, whether it is to watch leagues overseas or MLS.
In a sports nation that adheres to the four "major" sports (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL), MLS is definitely a major fifth, if not now, then soon, very soon.
The league is already reaping the fruits of a generation that grew up with up the league and is now investing in its future. Within the stands of MLS stadiums you will find fans that are smart, demand more of their sport than any other, and are actively involved with the culture of their teams.
Americans are coming to the realization that soccer is a sport where you are not simply confined to a chair and reduced to visual and auditory cues that command you when to cheer. It is an interactive culture that rewards creativity, imagination and involvement.
This is not a knock on the other major sports in North America. The World Series is still the Fall Classic, the Super Bowl is still the "Big Game," the Stanley Cup is still the most mythical trophy in sports, and while the NBA still awards its champion an ugly trophy, the league is undeniably a major ingredient in the diet of an American sports fan.
Soccer is a bit different, though. It takes things to another dimension. It is not just about one league, but hundreds. It is not just about supporting your national team once every four years, but every day. It is not just about the art of a good tailgate, but the giant banners and posters that supporters proudly design and unveil before every game. It is not just about cheering when a Jumbotron tells you to, it is about brainstorming and composing the perfect song or chant for your team that you sing in unison with thousands of other supporters when you deem it so.
There is something very American about this freedom of expression that is not offered by the four other major sports. It is one of the biggest draws to soccer and will be the impetus for a generation of supporters that will propel the sport to the forefront of American consciousness.
You can see it from sea to shining sea. From the Northwest and the massive support generated by the Cascadia clubs, to the Southeast and teams like Orlando City S.C. and Carolina RailHawks F.C. that draw smaller crowds but whose passion cannot be denied.
Even in places deemed financially deceased, a new generation has embraced the sport. Detroit City F.C., stand up. Even the New York Cosmos have risen from the ruins of the old NASL.
And, through it all, AYSO continues to be as popular as ever.
So, what happened on a balmy Tuesday, September 10 in Columbus?
It was about more than tradition; it was about evolution and destroying the archaic stereotypes of soccer in the US.
It has been happening all these years.
It is happening as you read this.
It will continue to happen next summer and for decades to come.
Rise and destroy.