US Soccer, World Cup Dreams and Redefining the American Soccer Fan

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US Soccer, World Cup Dreams and Redefining the American Soccer Fan
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"Dad, why don't you wear your U.S. soccer shirt to the game this weekend," my seven-year-old soccer-playing daughter asked as I prepared to cover the United States men's national team in a warm-up match for the 2014 World Cup.

"Well, because it's unprofessional," I replied. "You aren't supposed to root for the team you are covering."

"Why not," she answered. "Don't you love America?"

It's hard in our profession to put rooting interests aside, but it's even harder to keep covering a team and rooting for it separate when that team represents America and everything you have grown up wanting U.S. soccer to be.

The future of U.S. soccer is really just beginning, and we get to be on the front lines, whether we are wearing jerseys in the stands or merely hearts on our sleeves in the press box.

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Taylor Twellman—the former U.S. international who now covers the game for ESPN—told me last week that he and Alexi Lalas had to make their World Cup predictions while standing in front of the U.S. team.

Neither picked the United States to advance.

As much as we want the U.S. to win at the World Cup, we must be realistic about the team's chances. In December, Jurgen Klinsmann told European-based reporter Sam Borden of The New York Times that the United States cannot win this World Cup. The quote was held for a piece released in early June, creating shock waves around the sports world that a coach would admit his team has no chance to win.

Klinsmann is right. If by some chance the United States can get out of the toughest group in Brazil, the team will likely face Russia or Belgium before a draw against either Lionel Messi and Argentina or whichever team is good enough to beat them.

Get through that, somehow, and Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Uruguay or Italy awaits. Get past one of them, and another—or perhaps Germany again—will be waiting in the final.

No, the United States cannot win the World Cup this year.

But this World Cup is not about right now. In some ways, it never was. This World Cup is about redefining the American soccer dream.

Getting out of the group would be big. Showing something in Brazil that Americans can be proud to support will be huge.

Elsa/Getty Images

 

Pledging Allegiance

In America, patriotism and soccer have never been a definitive combination. It may take a former German superstar to finally change that.

When you live in a country that doesn't have much of a chance to win the World Cup every four years, you have a tendency to gravitate toward rooting for a team that does. This, by the way, is not a uniquely American concept.

Neil Condon is a former youth international for Australia who moved to the United States, played here in college and stayed stateside to become a high-level youth coach.

"As a young boy growing up in Brisbane, Australia, I looked forward to the World Cup," Condon told me, "and I supported England at the World Cup in which Australia did not play. This has not changed. As a boy, England was mine and many Australian supporters' adopted country to support, probably due to close ties between Australia and England in sports."

Condon has lived in the United States for years, and holds a USSF license, so he made it clear he is an avid supporter of U.S. soccer "unless they play Australia."

Josh Schultz is a high school history teacher in New Jersey and, like Condon, happens to be an Australian transplant, moving to the States in 1989 when he was 10 years old. While he still cheers for his old country—and is still bitter about an extra-time loss to the Italians in 2006—he says he would be happy if either of his teams gets out of the group stage.

"If they were to play each other," Schultz offered, "I think I would have to pull for the U.S. because of the atmosphere over here and attention it would bring to U.S. soccer." 

For people who live in America but come from countries that are bona fide contenders, things are different.

Mario Vega was born in Valencia, Spain, raised in Peru and played professionally for a decade before settling in America to start a business coaching at the youth levels. Vega—whose father played for Sevilla and Atletico Madrid—supports Spain, suggesting he will "root for both" the United States and Spain but, "no offense to U.S., I go for the Spanish team."

Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

Can you blame him? Vega isn't just rooting for the country that boasts the best international record of the last six years—he's from there.

Being from Spain comes with a sense of pride in the soccer community. Surely, for a coach and trainer in America, it's not bad for business, either.

Troy Baumgartner has a tougher call than Vega this year. The sports talk radio host for 1450 AM in Ohio was born in Wiesbaden, Germany before coming to America.

So who is he pulling for in this year's World Cup? It may depend on the circumstances.

"I was disappointed to see the United States grouped with Germany," he said, "because my worst-case scenario is both of those teams needing to win that final match to move on. While I hope United States goes far, I have to be realistic about what team has the better chance to win the World Cup and that’s Germany."

It's understandable for the "American" soccer community transplanted here to have other allegiances. It's not like U.S. soccer has given it any reason to pledge allegiance to the American side because of a history of success.

But what about those who have always lived in America?

Do Americans—full-blooded, born and raised in the good ol' U.S. of A Americans—feel compelled to root for U.S. soccer?

Yes and no. It just depends on how far back your soccer fandom goes.

Felipe Dana/Associated Press

Tom Fornelli is an Italian-American sportswriter for CBSSports.com and an unabashed fan of the Azzurri. Follow him on Twitter during any international competition, and you will see miles of excuses for Italian flopping, slow play, flopping, super-tight jerseys and, yes, flopping.

I asked him whom he would root for if the Italians faced off against the USMNT in the World Cup again, and the Chicago-based scribe stayed true to his home.

"My initial introduction to soccer was in 1994 when the World Cup was in the United States, including Chicago, where I am from," he said. "I obviously wanted America to win and was cheering for them, but they were knocked out early. And then a certain team in blue, from a certain country from where my ancestors hail, made it to the final.

"Since then, though, it's become more of an 'I love America and want America to do well, but let's be real, America doesn't have a chance. Italy does.' So I have two national teams. Both are based on pride in where I come from, but there's also the one that gives me a chance to be happy at the end of the day."

Daniel Bellizio, an attorney from Brooklyn, New York, sees both his soccer fandom and allegiance to U.S. soccer differently than Fornelli. While Fornelli, like many Americans, started following soccer in 1994, Bellizio's love of the beautiful game predated that American boon.

CARLO FUMAGALLI/Associated Press

Born and bred in the shadows of the Verrazano Bridge in New York, Bellizio was raised in an Italian household with a mother from America and a father who grew up in Argentina after his family emigrated from Italy.

Though self-identified as Italian-American like Fornelli, Bellizio roots for a lighter shade of blue, even over one that's paired with red and white.

"I'd root for Argentina," he said. "I remember watching them win the World Cup in 1986, so I've been a fan for a long time. It's no different than me rooting for the Knicks over the Brooklyn Nets. Just because they're from Brooklyn, doesn't mean I'm going to drop the Knicks. I love the fact that the USA has been competitive in international soccer for the last number of years, but my allegiance was already with Argentina."  

If Klinsmann has but one goal as coach and technical director of U.S. soccer—other than to win matches, of course—it's to make sure the next generation of soccer fans has enough faith in American soccer to ignore the temptation to follow another team.

It's a battle that's harder to win than one would hope at this point in the history of the sport in America.

Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler is from the United States, but his wife is from England. While he says he roots for both teams, he admits it was "a very tense day in our house" the last time the two nations met, with their oldest daughter rooting for England "because she loves her mother so much."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

 

A Second-Generation Soccer Nation

For most fans of the beautiful game, American soccer is just turning the page to its second generation.

Visit any youth training ground in the United States this summer, and you will see kids with jerseys from around the world: Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar. The game is more accessible than ever, and actually getting to watch the best players in the world is nothing like it was a generation ago.

Unless they were playing in the old NASL, and only then if they were playing for the New York Cosmos, like Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia or Franz Beckenbauer, it was very difficult for Americans to see the sport's top talent. My neighbor had to have one of those monstrous satellite dishes installed and would boast about how he could watch both the Japanese evening news and football matches from around the globe.

(Yes, men with satellite dishes who spent their nights watching Japanese news and their days watching Sheffield Wednesday in the First Division called it "football" even back in the 1980s.)

Associated Press

When the Cosmos died and the NASL went with them, America was a veritable soccer wasteland filled with millions of youngsters learning the sport with no real plan in mind and no proper infrastructure for teaching the game. Sure, there were pockets of soccer interest, and the college ranks were full of talented domestic players being coached by comparatively knowledgeable stewards, but for decades, it seemed the country was a constant resource of untapped potential.

In the 1980s and '90s, low-level professional players and coaches began to flock to the United States to cash in on the developing interest in the sport. If your coach had a foreign accent, he knew way more than the dad down the street. Even if that dad had a satellite dish.

When the United States qualified for the World Cup in 1990, things began to change. Soccer fans finally had stars to emulate, even if the rest of the country had no interest in following them or the sport. Four years after the United States made its return to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, we got the chance to host it.

There was no ignoring soccer then. There isn't now.

Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Soccer had always been played in America, but it truly arrived in 1994. The subsequent creation of MLS—born from the success of the World Cup—allowed the sport to grow roots in America.

It's 20 years later, and American soccer is just beginning to blossom.

Those of us who were teenagers when Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones and Tony Meola became rock stars in this country now have kids—the second generation—who only know a world where American soccer is thriving, where our teams routinely qualify for the World Cup, where there is an infrastructure of domestic professional soccer that, with hard work and a lot of skill, they can aspire to join.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

We have a place where international stars like David Beckham, Thierry Henry and David Villa want to come to play and where the Clint Dempseys and Michael Bradleys of our country can go to become bona fide American sports heroes.

That's the American soccer landscape we live in today. The second generation is really just beginning.

Kids today may root for Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo like the previous generation cheered on Maradona or Pele, but that doesn't mean American kids should be rooting for Argentina, Brazil or Portugal this World Cup.

If U.S. soccer continues to improve, this generation won't want to root for the power countries overseas. It will have a power country right here.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Which brings me back to the question my daughter asked. I do love America, and I certainly love American soccer, warts and all. And while publications like The Washington Post can trot out numbers that say soccer was actually more popular in 1994 than it is today, that's simply manipulating the numbers in their favor to make the story more convincing.

Soccer is so much more accessible now than it has ever been in America. In 1994, I would have said I was a soccer fan, having watched a handful of U.S. qualifying matches and a few dozen World Cup games that summer. Now, we can watch a few dozen games every weekend. And we don't even need a satellite dish the size of the Death Star to do it.

This story—hell, this summer for U.S. soccer—isn't about growing a nation of soccer fans; it's about getting those who are fans to care more about American soccer.

First, American soccer has to get better, and the next generation has all the resources to make that happen.

We used to only care in this country if U.S. soccer won. Now, people actually care when U.S. soccer loses. The more people start to care about those losses, the more wins we should expect.

The days of hoping for the U.S. to get out of the group before rooting for Germany, Spain or Argentina are gone.

The second generation is here. The dream for U.S. soccer, for Klinsmann, for all soccer fans, is just now being realized. Everyone in America should root for that.

 

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