Monday, June 19, 2006
World Cup 2006 could be a tipping point for the developing popularity of American soccer that may be delayed another four years if the US national team is unable to qualify out of the group stage.

With a repeat of American success from 2002, this tournament has the potential to permanently alter the way that soccer is treated as a sport back home in the media, and with the public in general.

While ignorance of American soccer runs high in Europe, as highlighted by YA's Sean O' Conor, the learning curve back home in the run up to Germany took a step in the right direction with unprecedented print coverage of the action, along with complete television broadcasts of all the action.

As a Yank abroad, I was shocked by the bombardment of coverage when I went back to the USA for a few weeks before the spectacle began.

It was almost as if I was back in England with stores like Best Buy running World Cup specials and a few articles in every periodical I picked up discussing various aspects of the game. The only difference was that Wayne Rooney's foot was not the subject of everything I read (Thank God!).

For the first time in its history, the New York Times offered a full World Cup Preview. In addition, countless discussions took place in other periodicals, including places I would never expect it like National Geographic and even AARP's monthly (that's right, even old people are getting into the action).

They were all trying to explain to all those who would read their articles why the rest of the world shuts down while Americans seem to remain ignorant during this World Cup.

Perhaps what was most refreshing was that the coverage was not limited to explanations of what to watch for in soccer, how to understand the game or what to expect from the cup in general in terms of competition, but also included in-depth features on the players that would represent the US in Germany.

For once, Americans were bombarded with material about their own team and could put faces, human interest stories and the like in their mind as they watched the games or highlights, adding to the melodrama that is World Cup soccer.

It seemed that America was ripe to finally pay full attention to the biggest sporting event in the world, an event that until this year had been largely ignored. The only question would be how long would Americans be able to pay attention to the tournament?

It was ironic to grow up in the generation that played more soccer than baseball growing up for the first time in American history, when "soccer moms" with their mini-vans became the norm across the American landscape, but never see the game I was playing on television.

When World Cup '94 came through my home city, Chicago, no one I knew cared to watch or go to a game.

I remember some minor hoopla, busses adorned with images of soccer players and Alexi Lalas' hair, but still had no idea that I was missing some of the greatest performances by a player, Hristo Stoichkov, that I might have ever seen in my short life.

Now every kid on summer break can watch new found American heroes on the television, even if it was totally by accident, when they were bored flipping through channels in the middle of the day with nothing better to do.

Maybe through the media bombardment, they will identify with players for more reasons than a wild head of red hair!

I know that after the 1994 World Cup, the growth of MLS was beginning to lay the inroads for small fan bases across the country and my own personal awareness of the greatness of the game started to grow.

I finally made it to Soldier Field, dragging friends that never seemed as interested as me, to see an older, slower Stoichkov work his magic for my Chicago Fire.

I remember when I had to scour all sources available to feed my personal soccer mania (primarily the internet) just to get an inkling of information about what might be on TV and when. I was often disappointed to find out that the information that I had was wrong or the programming had changed and the venerable sport of billiards was to be on instead of my beloved soccer.

Didn't the programming executives somehow know that the only day I was ever sick from school was on Wednesdays to watch the reliable Champions League broadcasts?

Well, now it seems that the media is there and ready to cover this Cup. All they need is a story, and what better to cover and capture the attention of Americans than our own national success?

The beauty of an Argentina victory over Serbia & Montenegro is not going to pull more Americans to the game, but the renewed sense of American nationalism in this post-9/11 world would... we just need to get out of the first round.

I am not even sure that the resilience shown by the nine men left standing in the Italy game will be enough to really garner the attention of the American public to change things measurably within the next few years before South Africa.

America likes to win at sports; if we don't win, we wonder what is wrong with us.

Sitting in an American bar here in London watching the Czech Republic game I was struck by a casual observer who asked rhetorically, "I thought we were supposed to be good?" and left shortly afterwards with another half hour still to be played.

It was readily apparent to me that the interest was there, all America needed were some victories to cheer about and bring out that nationalism.

Alas, the US is going to need some help from Italy to advance on the last day, and there is still a glimmer of hope.

Nevertheless, with a sport that can be as fickle as soccer, I am never the optimist. While I know it is possible to take one of the first two spots in Group E, I cannot expect the national team to advance and only see what might already be lost.

The tipping point that is so close may pass again, waiting for another four years for another media bombardment and a greater American success, so the casual fan doesn't have to moan 'I thought we were good'.

Then again, perhaps all of the media coverage stateside was enough to at least peak the attention of some kids that will pick up a soccer ball and practice their step-overs and nutmegs.

Maybe this little bit of extra attention, win or lose, will be enough to get more kids in America to look at soccer as a sport that you can play professionally and earn respect for your country abroad.

I hope that over the next decade, children will be influenced the media bombardment that I saw when I was visiting the US a few weeks ago and that, in time, we will see more Yanks come abroad.

It seems to work like clockwork: with every passing four years, Americans pay more and more attention to soccer as it is given more and more awareness by the media back home.

I suppose we just have to wonder when that interest will translate into more consistent American success, and vice versa.