The USA as a soccer nation — the next generation

It’s easy to feel like we’ve seen it all before.

The USA gets all wrapped up in the World Cup. Everyone asks if it’ll last and whether we’ve finally caught on.

But to see the progress, you have to look farther back than every four-year cycle.

In the pre-Internet days 20 years ago, I was always “The Soccer Guy.” If people had a soccer question, they asked me. By today’s standards, I wasn’t much of an expert. In those days, anyone who could name a few players was the go-to person.

Even in 1999, I was in relative isolation. Frankly, that gave me some opportunities — the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service and then USA TODAY let me write soccer columns because I filled a niche no one else was clamoring to fill. I wrote a column for KRT after the 1999 Women’s World Cup final suggesting that the USA was finally learning what it meant to be a soccer supporter — to fret nervously through a tight game and then exulting in relief and celebration. (Or not, which is painful.)

My timing was wrong. The USA has always had a subcurrent of people who want to be soccer supporters but didn’t have the tools of today’s satellite TV and social media. The mainstream took a bit longer to catch on.

But it did. And just take a look at all the things today we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago:

– Massive public gatherings to watch U.S. games, not just in metropolises like New York but everywhere.

– ESPN’s website brought to its knees by demand. (It’s OK — I didn’t need to watch Portugal-Ghana.)

– Sitting down at Starbucks to watch South Korea play on my phone, only to see the person next to me already has it up on his laptop.

– Going outside to deal with the dogs and hearing loud cheers alerting me to a U.S. goal — from next door. (Their cable is apparently a little faster than ours.)

– The USA leading the world in traveling to Brazil for the Cup.

– Topic A everywhere you go. Twenty-five, even 10 years ago, if you mentioned the World Cup to someone, you might have to explain what it is. No more.

The biggest question, the skeptics always say, is what happens in the years between big events. But notice how the skepticism has shifted.

MLS was once written off because, it was said, Americans couldn’t get into soccer. Now the skeptics say MLS can’t get any better because U.S. fans are spoiled by the Premier League, La Liga, Mexican soccer and the Champions League.

Quite a change, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s a latent love of the game that was brought out by social media and the realization that others were out there. Perhaps it’s a generational change, with kids growing up with the game as part of the mainstream.

Doesn’t matter in the long run. I said in my 1999 column that the USA was learning to be a soccer nation. But I had no idea what that would mean for all of us over the next 15 years.

For those of us who always argued for this sport and fought for it, it’s a moment to savor. Enjoy.

And then make sure everyone’s watching the women next year.

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