Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Sports column

July 2, 2014

Forget 1-2-1 record; World Cup a resounding success

BLUEFIELD — Has one team ever accomplished more by winning one game in four tries?

Perhaps not.

The United States soccer team won one of four games in the World Cup, also losing twice and tying once, but this was a rousing success for a sport still trying to catch up with the rest of the world.

Everywhere else, soccer is king. In America, it's just another of many sports our country has to offer.

Yet, this particular team made soccer king in America, if only for 15 days. It was very much like the opening two weeks of the NCAA tournament in which college basketball gets its chance to shine.

The thing is, the NCAA tournament happens every year. The World Cup won't be back for four years.

How big was it? World Cup fever may not have been prevalent in this area — where apparently not even Bob Hope could gain an sizable audience all those years ago — but it certainly swept much of the rest of the country.

In looking for Associated Press stories and photos on any World Cup game involving the United States, first you had to click through dozens of photos of soccer fans across this nation gathered in public viewings to watch the action.

From the time the United States defeated Ghana — which had eliminated the Americans in the two previous World Cups — soccer fever gripped this country more than ever before.

The closest soccer had come to catching the attention of this nation's football-centered — the American kind — sports fans was when Brandi Chastain tore off her jersey when the United States women won the Women’s World Cup in 1999.

That wasn't anything new. Well, maybe taking off the shirt was, but not the U.S. success in the relatively new FIFA Women's World Cup. It has been played just six times since 1991, and the U.S. has won it twice, finished second twice and third twice.

Yet, it's the men's World Cup that has U.S. soccer fans wanting success.

After the U.S, went 36 years (1954-90) without even qualifying for the World Cup, the Americans have been in all seven since then, reaching the Round of 16 three times, including this year and in 2010.

Soccer, in a lot of ways, is like Notre Dame football or the New York Yankees in baseball. You either love it or you hate it.

At least that is what I thought. Put me in the middle somewhere.

I have had interactions with both sides over the last few weeks. Now I don't claim to be a soccer fan. All that running around and playing keep-away with the ball without actually trying to score leaves me yearning for offense.

Get behind in soccer, and it is seemingly impossible to come back.

Yet, I have to admit, I found myself flipping on the World Cup on my SiriusXM radio — yes, soccer (and even golf and tennis) are on the radio — to keep up with the game, and listen to the always-entertaining Tommy Smyth, who is very much like John Madden doing an NFL game, only with that irresistible English accent.

I even caught myself watching the end of the Brazil and Chile game last Saturday, cheering on Chile, which is where my oldest niece and nephew were born.

Imagine if Brazil, which spent billions it probably didn't have to build venues for the World Cup, while many of its citizens live in embarrassing poverty, hadn't moved into the Round of 16.

It almost happened. Chile attempted a late kick in what is called extra time and it deflected off the top of the crossbar. That close to no host team. That was followed by penalty kicks, which is as dramatic as any finish in sports.

There are five kicks per team, with a different offensive player going against the same goalkeeper, who must feel so lonely in a stadium full of thousands.

Brazil won 3-2, and to watch the fans from both sides, the sheer joy of victory and the tantalizing agony of defeat, was enough to draw anyone with a pulse into the game.

I was drawn in again on Tuesday evening. I drove over to Bowen Field to do some interviews for future baseball features, and flipped on the game. It was 0-0. When I got back to the car, it was 2-0 in favor of Belgium.

Ball game, right? Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, who has his own network on Sirius XM and is no fan of soccer, was asking his cohorts if any of them cared now that the U.S. was out of the World Cup.

This was while the game was still in progress, once again in something called extra time. The clock never stops in soccer, but there are interruptions in play, and so referees can add time to compensate for some of that lost time.

Wouldn't it be nice to get extra time in the real world?

Suddenly, as Russo was exclaiming the end of the interest in soccer, America scored and he let out a scream and was suddenly as excited as all those fans gathered across the country cheering on the good 'ole USA.

The U.S. had a few more chances, but fell a goal short.

Still, the U.S. played four games in 15 days. It might sound that great, a 1-2-1 record, scoring five goals and allowing six.

Yet, this was a resounding success for the United States. They won 2-1 against Ghana, which had been its nemesis for the last two World Cups, had Portugal beat until a pulse-pounding last-second goal tied the score at 2-2, and that was followed by narrow defeats against Germany (1-0) and Belgium (2-1).

Not bad at all.

Many questioned the move when German-born Jurgen Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley as the U.S. coach three years ago. At least that is what I remember since I probably didn't care much at the time.

Yet, Klinsmann, who had Bradley's son, Michael, on his team, has used his own style — even leaving ultra-popular Landon Donovan off the World Cup team — and may have given soccer the boost it needed in this country.

Now comes the real test for soccer.

Will the U.S. sports fans watch the remainder of the World Cup since the Americans are no longer playing? Better yet, will they pay attention to soccer at all?

There is the MLS in our country, which draws huge crowds and is immensely popular in local communities, but has absolutely no national appeal. There are also European Leagues that are competitive and feature the best players in the world, and the U.S. National Team will play again on Sept. 3 in a "friendly" with the Czech Republic.

The U.S. will be involved in numerous international tournaments over the next four years, and the endless World Cup qualifying that probably starts in about a month for the next World Cup.

Will names like Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones be forgotten next week, not to be recalled again — much like Olympic athletes — until four years from now when the World Cup plays again in Russia.

There may come a day when soccer players are as well known in America as they are in other parts of the world. It will just take time, like decades, when many of us either won't be here or won't care.

While the baseball fan in me screams in disdain, it is soccer that is growing in popularity among the younger generation. Get out to a youth soccer field sometime. It is full of kids.

They might be kids now, but they are our athletes and sports fans of the future.

Believe it: If we can survive global warming, Obamacare and four or eight (here’s hoping for none) years of Hillary, than we might live long enough to see soccer make it big in the United States.

Yep, it’s true. Soccer is on the way, whether you and I like it or not.

—Contact Brian Woodson at bwoodson / Twitter @bdtwoodson.

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