THE US COMES OF AGE
Saturday night in Kaiserslautern was historic on and off the field for the US.
Ask anyone blessed enough to have won a ticket for the game what the atmosphere in Fritz-Walter Stadion was like and they will reply with assorted superlatives.
For a fan culture so often derided as lacking in true passion, the Americans sang and shouted themselves hoarse in support of their soccer team that night.
There have been larger numbers of American soccer fans massed together in one place before in the US, and I fondly recall being part of the vocal crowds in Korea in 2002, but what made Kaiserslautern so special was the type of support backing Bruce Arena's boys.
The majority were not servicemen from the many bases scattered around this corner of Germany, despite the expectation of the Italian press.
Emanuela Audisio of Corriere dello Sport thought there were more Americans than Italians in town (opinions differed on this all day), but seemed convinced the majority were Yanks from Ramstein enjoying being 'European' for a day.
She added that a commentator had been employed there to explain the rules to the Americans during the game.
Giancarlo Galavotti of La Gazzetta dello Sport thought the US fans were 'very middle class, very New England and very melting pot'.
He also noted our big bellies and 'abdominals so submerged they cannot be from the US Army'.
But Galavotti also said the Ramstein Americans were not much in evidence and complemented our females for looking like they came from the pages of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Special - forgive him, he is Italian.
Italy's pink soccer paper contained a field report from the US Air Force base in Aviano, Italy and colleague Luigi Garlando continued the military theme, calling Daniele De Rossi's elbow on Brian McBride a 'code red reaction, an instinct more typical of the young marines from Ramstein'.
So if the majority of US fans were not soldiers, were they the stereotyped suburban soccer families? They were there again in good numbers as a reminder of the backbone of the sport back home.
No, the US fans were soccer fans pure and simple, as knowedgable and passionate as any other supporter at the World Cup. I have a feeling that the fan base is changing every tournament the US plays overseas, and I felt this more than ever in K-town.
The ignorance surrounding the US team in Europe extends to its fan culture, with many people still surprised to meet other American fans in Germany. They tell you they have been to America and found no one following soccer there, and that sport is more entertainment than tribalism in the States anyway.
You reply that it is big country with longer-established sports blah blah, but the best way to change this mindset is to be there as a fan, as an ambassador for soccer in America.
Forging a passionate pro-US crowd has always been an issue at home, as we well know, but in recent years certain qualifiers played at Crew Stadium or RFK have proved we can do it.
Overseas, it should be easier as you are more aware of your national identity and there are not 20,000 Hondurans trying to buy seats in the US section.
When the United States played Germany in Paris at France '98, a sizeable group of travelling fans made the trip for the first time.
But as part of that US support, the large-scale passion, the ability to think as a crowd, to make your voice heard as one on the field and on television, was not there.
US fans in France sang beautiful anthems like God Bless America, but stood apart from the other competing nations with their lack of partisanship, a reflection of the less tribal nature of soccer in America.
That is true no more. In K-town, we chanted and booed, hissed, whistled and threw paper cups at every refereeing blunder or display of Italian histrionics.
We also proved our true fan status by improvising chants such as 'Oh Azzurri, oh azzurri, want to buy a referee?'
Of course, we do not want to step too far into emulating the Old World and start fighting, but any hotheads in K-town who came close to converting their verbals into physicals were
quickly smothered by peace making compatriots.
The provocation was certainly there from an aggressive Italian fan culture that is 20 to 30 years behind the times in terms of proper behavior.
For instance, a group seated close to us were mimicking crashing airplanes in an unpleasant repeat of the Glasgow Celtic blockhead who taunted Claudio Reyna with 9/11 when he played for city rivals Rangers.
Italy had arrived with a reputation as a soccer behemoth, but failed to beat nine heroes on the field, while their fans, stuffed with legions of expats speaking German, were edged out by the thunderous corner of Americans.
If we can build on that night in Ktown before long we will have earned the respect of soccer fans worldwide.
The atmosphere in the American section was fiery, passionate and thrilling, and I almost cannot believe I have just said that.
At long last, we are here, as a serious team and with serious support.