Of course it was Landon Donovan, the face of U.S. Soccer who waited four years to make amends for a lackluster showing in the last World Cup.
The hairline is receding, but the team is advancing. Soccer in the U.S. is advancing. Believe that. Believe the eruption on Capitol Hill or your office or the street. Americans were watching, all right. They were waiting. They were rewarded with a moment to remember.
It had to be Donovan who in the 91st minute would direct a rebound past the Algerian goalkeeper, giving a U.S. side that had missed countless opportunities the only goal that it needed to avoid elimination.
“We’re not done yet,” Donovan, who was in tears, said in a televised interview.
No wonder the kids in Central Park spent the past few weeks wearing replica jerseys with the names Donovan, Altidore or Dempsey on the back instead of the usual sporting suspects like Jeter or Wright or Manning.
Kids are getting their kicks with kicks. Something is afoot.
Three minutes from disappointment, Donovan led a counterattack in Pretoria, South Africa. Jozy Altidore’s cross found Clint Dempsey, whose redirection was stopped but not controlled. Donovan slid the waiting ball into the goal, triggering celebrations here, there and who knows where.
The goal won the game and, for the first time since 1930, the group.
“Time kind of stopped,” Donovan said.
Speaking of time, this isn’t a once-every-four-year argument over whether soccer can, at long last, succeed in the U.S. There is no argument. Not anymore. Not after this.
Not when you consider the U.S. ranked 23rd globally in World Cup viewing in 1998. Four years later the U.S. was 13th, and in 2006 it climbed to eighth. You can bet the pattern will continue this year as Donovan gave all those kids watching on TV a reason to dream.
The interest is there. Only the most oblivious among us could have missed the outrage and outcry directed at referee Koman Coulibaly, who incorrectly disallowed a likely game-winning goal for the U.S. against Slovenia. Soccer became the lead item at the water cooler. The officials disallowed another U.S. goal against Algeria. Questionable call. Doesn’t matter now.
So much of soccer’s future in the U.S. depends on the national team, which has a number of reasons for optimism.
Learning to Compete
First, though, let’s remember what constitutes success. The U.S. team finished dead last among 32 teams at the 1998 World Cup. To put things in perspective, the Americans, at the national level, were considered a laughingstock. Now the U.S. regularly competes against historical heavyweights like England, which played the Americans to a 1-1 draw earlier in the tournament and Brazil, which edged the U.S. 3-2 in last year’s Confederations Cup.
I grew up playing soccer, watching soccer, and believing that, some day, when the best athletes in a country of some 300 million were for whatever reason motivated to trade traditional sports like football, basketball and baseball for the world’s most popular game the U.S. would find equal footing with the best.
It’s beginning to happen. Look, say, at Oguchi Onyewu, or “Gooch” as the defender is known to teammates.
Surely Dabo Swinney, the football coach at Clemson University, where Onyewu played soccer, could find a helmet for this fellow.
“When you see a guy like that, at 6-4 and 220 pounds, you think he could be a great outside linebacker,” Swinney said.
That was precisely the thought held by Pat Cilento, the football coach at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland, Onyewu’s alma mater.
“He is a specimen,” said Cilento, noting that he’s got about two dozen players in shoulder pads right now that would make excellent soccer players.
The key is to persuade the best athletes to pursue soccer.
The kids watching the World Cup will get more than a few glimpses of Onyewu, 28, Altidore, 20, and Dempsey, 27.
Gone are the days when the best American players disappeared until the next time around. The U.S. players are securing positions in the best leagues in the world, including Italy’s Serie A, England’s Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga.
Onyewu last year signed as a free agent with AC Milan. Altidore, meantime, last season could be seen with Hull City of the EPL while Dempsey works for Fulham.
“American youngsters see they can achieve that kind of glory,” says Jay Emmett, an executive at Warner Communications Inc. when it owned the defunct New York Cosmos. “It’s a long process.”
The Cosmos bought the best players, including Pele of Brazil, Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Giorgio Chinaglia of Italy, but lost millions each year and the North American Soccer League eventually folded.
No one anytime soon is going to confuse the U.S.’s top domestic league, Major League Soccer, with the EPL. The long-term goal, shared by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, is for MLS to attract the world’s top talent by paying top dollar.
Those who love to hate soccer are fond of pointing out that they have been hearing about a boom for decades. They’re right. It has been years -- 25 or so.
Those who inhabit an instant-gratification society are under the impression that, somehow, a sporting overhaul should occur right away.
Doesn’t work that way. U.S. Soccer’s plan, hatched in 1984, spans 50 years, which means it’s only halfway done. Goals like Donovan’s help.
Former President Bill Clinton was on hand for the win, sitting beside FIFA President Sepp Blatter and working on behalf of U.S. Soccer to secure the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.
“We’re alive, baby,” Donovan said.
So, too, is soccer in the U.S.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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