There Are Plenty of Reasons for US Soccer Fans to Continue Watching World Cup
The United States is out of the World Cup, but that doesn't mean the tournament is over. In fact, with eight teams remaining in the biggest global sporting event on the planet, it almost feels like the real World Cup is just beginning.
Don't get me wrong, I wish the United States was still playing in Brazil, and a day after a loss to Belgium which featured an American side that was not outworked but decidedly outclassed, it hurts to think about turning on a soccer game and not seeing the red, white and blue represent our rooting interests.
We are a long way from the United States becoming a world power in the sport, but the interest shown this week proves that until we get there, more and more fans seem to be hopping on for the ride.
There is no need to hop off now that the U.S. is out.
Gone is the four-year waiting period after each World Cup for soccer to return to America. There is soccer tonight and nearly every night this week in both MLS and—starting back up on Friday—the World Cup.
There are but a few short months between now and the resumption of the European league schedules. There is a lot of soccer to be played between now and 2018, even if the United States isn't suiting up for all of it.
As prevalent as the sport has become on American television, this isn't another plea for casual fans to become year-round fans of the sport.
For those of us who watch soccer every weekend, we don't need the pep talk. For those of you who may only care once every four years when it's World Cup time, that's fine too.
Just don't quit on the World Cup yet. As incredible as it has already been, it could get even better. Here are a few reasons why it's worth watching the rest of the tournament, and a few more reasons for those with the interest to continue watching the sport in general. The rest of this World Cup can turn casual fans into diehards.
In America, we are habitual front-runners, which is part of the reason soccer has never really taken off in this country, especially at the international level. When we aren't watching the best, American fans tend to lose interest. (It doesn't explain why the NCAA tournament is more popular than some NBA playoff games, but that's a conversation for another time.)
What is important to remind American fair-weather fans is that the final eight teams in the World Cup are really, really good. They may not be Champions League final-quality sides, but when you factor in the national pride at stake for each, the last few rounds of the World Cup trumps any other soccer on the planet. This is high-quality stuff. We love high-quality stuff.
That sentiment is especially true when seeing how many of the power countries are still in the field.
Brazil against Colombia is going to be an amazing match. It not only features one of the marquee national teams in the world, but also a team that has the pressure of playing against a continental rival on home soil. There is so much on the line between these two South American sides that it could take 100 columns just to scratch the surface before kickoff.
And while that's the late game on July 4 for our TV viewing pleasure, there is a chance the early game could eclipse Brazil's drama with its own transcontinental rivalry.
Germany against France for a place in the World Cup semifinals? Are you kidding me? How incredible could that match be, with so many emotions on the line and so much talent on the field?
Friday is going to be an amazing day of soccer, even without the growing nervousness of the United States playing the next day.
Sure, Saturday's games lost some patriotic luster with the U.S. falling to Belgium, but there are still some power teams involved, with the Netherlands—looking to get back to the World Cup final for the second time in four years—facing Costa Rica (more on them later) and Argentina playing Belgium in what could be the best match of the entire weekend—if you care about positive, offensive football.
The bracket also offers the possible scenario that Brazil face Germany for a spot in the World Cup final, while there is also potential for Argentina and the Netherlands to face off in the other semifinal. After sticking around this long, some U.S. fans want to miss out on that?
(Note: While less high-profile, the possibility of watching Colombia play France may be more entertaining than either of those.)
Messi, Neymar and a Cavalcade of Household Names
We like big names in America. Household names. And while the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey should certainly be names most American households know at this point, it will still take some time for casual fans to recall the name of other American players, like that big tall guy who scored the late goal against Ghana. (Reminder: It was John Brooks.)
The real stars of the World Cup are household names around the world, and while injuries and early exits in the group stage (and biting incidents) took a few of the biggest names away from us already, there are still a lot of well-known stars on display in the final eight.
There is still a chance that Neymar and Lionel Messi could square off in a match to decide who wins the World Cup.
There is a chance that Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer and their German compatriots could face off against Bayern Munich star Arjen Robben, Manchester United striker Robin van Persie and the Dutch in the final. That's if Germany can get past the French, who, despite missing Franck Ribery, still boast the likes of Karim Benzema, an aged Patrice Evra, and Hugo Lloris, just to name a few.
What's more, in addition to the bona fide household names still left in the tournament, there are a ton of up-and-coming younger stars making names for themselves in Brazil.
In fact, there are so many young players, let's give them their own category.
The Young Stars Are Shining
The leading scorer at the World Cup is not Messi or Mueller or Neymar or Benzema or Robben or Van Persie or Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Suarez or any of the names most people around the globe—yes, even many Americans—knew coming into the World Cup.
James (pronounced "Hah-mez") has five goals in four matches, despite playing nearly 60 minutes less than the next-highest scorers in the tournament. James currently plays for AS Monaco in France, but there is so much interest in the Colombian star that it may be hard to imagine him staying there very long. He is worth watching, for sure.
Of course, he's not the only young star at this tournament. And by the time it's over, he may not even be the most talked-about one either.
Neymar, like James, is just 22 years old, which is incredible to think about with regards to how huge a global brand he has become. It will be hard for anyone to get quite as big as him over the next two weeks, but a few stars might get pretty darn close if their teams make it deeper into the tournament.
Paul Pogba is just 21 years old, and the French midfielder and Juventus player is proving his quality and style in the center of the field during this World Cup. So, too, is Raphael Varane. The 21-year-old Real Madrid man has proven to be a stalwart on the back line for France, and a good effort in a victory over Germany could elevate both to another level around the world.
Speaking of Germany, there is so much quality on that team that there isn't as much room for young talent as Jogi Loew may have liked. Still, he has found room for 22-year-old star Mario Goetze, as well as 24-year-old midfielder Toni Kroos, both part of the deep connection between the national side and Bayern Munich.
With the German connection to our American side, it's probably good to get a sense of which young Germans will become leaders in their next World Cup cycle as well. Methinks this rivalry is just getting started.
And that leaves, among other notable stars we don't have time to highlight, perhaps the best young player in Europe: Belgium's Eden Hazard.
Wait, let's not stop at just the 23-year-old Chelsea player. This is the "golden generation" for Belgium, isn't it? Let's include the likes of keeper Thibaut Courtois, 22, and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, 23, and power forward and American hopes and dreams killer Romelu Lukaku—who is inexplicably only 21 years old—and the 19-year-old Divock Origi who started in his place against the United States.
The future of the game is very bright, and a lot of that talent is shining in the final eight of the World Cup.
Goals and Drama
To the "soccer is boring" crowd, I will just say this: shut up. If you don't like something, that's fine, but to continue to perpetuate the misconception that soccer is a boring game devoid of any drama is asinine after watching the first 56 matches in this tournament.
There have been nearly three goals scored per game—154 in total so far—more than half a goal above the average in 2010, and many of them have come at crucial moments of each match. There were two buzzer-beaters so far this World Cup. When does that ever happen in soccer?
In the eight knockout matches so far, two have gone to penalty kicks, one of which got there after a 90th-minute tally tied the match between Costa Rica and Greece.
Of the 18 goals scored in the knockout rounds thus far, 15 have come after halftime, with 12 coming after the 75th minute of play and seven of those coming in extra time.
Drama? Yeah, there's drama.
MLS and CONCACAF Connections
Okay, so the United States is out, but that doesn't mean everyone from MLS is gone from the tournament.
Here is a list of the players who went to Brazil from MLS, and as you can see, a few of them are still alive in the tournament.
Most notably on the list is Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar, who earned Man of the Match honors after stopping multiple shots in the penalty-kick victory over Chile. You will also notice a host of Costa Rican players, which leads to the next and perhaps more important point about soccer in this part of the world.
It's good to root for MLS players, and as an American soccer fan, it's important to support MLS if and when you feel the product in your area deserves support. The Philadelphia Union, for example, are abysmal right now—a rudderless ship of a franchise with no real understanding of how to satiate an eager fanbase. Should fans in Philadelphia blindly flock to PPL Park to cheer for a flawed team this year, or should they use their love of the game—and interest in MLS—to put pressure on the franchise to do things right?
Support for MLS can come in more ways than just showing up. Having said that, showing up is good too.
But more than MLS, for the growth of U.S. Soccer the World Cup is all about CONCACAF, and with Mexico (thankfully) and the United States (sadly) out of the tournament, all hopes for CONCACAF lie with Los Ticos.
Costa Rica deserves American support, and it stands to reason that American fans should adopt the Ticos for as long as they are in the tournament. Their success can only help the region, which will help the United States in the long run.
If there is one reason to stay tuned to the World Cup out of obligation more than interest, pulling for Costa Rica might be it.
English Premier League, La Liga, Et Al.
There is hope in MLS circles that the success of the United States navigating the group of death and fighting hard against Belgium will help interest in the sport grow, thus translating to an uptick in MLS support.
While that may happen, what's more likely is that NBC will benefit this summer when the EPL season heats up, and Fox will benefit even more when the Champions League returns.
We are a big event nation, and as stated earlier, we love big stars. Many of us will adopt teams that employ players we like—expect a huge bump in American support for Everton after Howard's display against Belgium—but the fun thing about rooting for European teams is that you can really pick whatever team you want and nobody should quibble a bit.
American fans aren't hamstrung by proximity—you must root for the Chicago Fire, Windy City faithful—when picking a European side to support.
Do you like the way Hazard plays? Start following Chelsea.
Are you in awe of Messi's brilliance? Grab a Barca kit at the mall.
That's the thing about becoming a new fan: At some point, we're all posers just trying to fit in. It takes years to feel established as a diehard, and that's okay because starting late is better than not starting at all.
Remember this, though: If you fall in love with a player at the World Cup, you can absolutely follow every match of his club team this season on American television. Our coverage of the European leagues is actually better than what they offer in Europe.
With the U.S. out, pick a star and root for him. Then, if it makes you feel happy, follow his club team too. There is nothing wrong with that, and don't let any snooty fan in a musty old scarf tell you otherwise.
If this World Cup has done one thing for the United States fans, it has made us feel more a part of the rest of the world. There's often been a stigma with soccer in America that it's "their" game, not ours. Even the fact most countries call it football or futbol to our soccer has given Americans reason to look at the sport from an outsider's perspective.
That shouldn't be the case anymore. Our team has an international feel to it, and so does our uniquely diverse population. Soccer is more popular in America today because we've redefined what it is to be American. Our population is always changing, and with that, our interests have changed. Soccer is becoming a part of American culture, and with that, more a part of the rest of the world.
Certainly social media has helped connect us to the rest of the world as well, and it should be our obligation and pleasure to stay a part of the biggest sporting event in history.
Watching the World Cup at this stage in the tournament is a great way to stay connected to a unrivaled feeling of global celebration.
Sure, the United States is out, but that doesn't mean the World Cup is over.