RIO DE JANEIRO — When the U.S. National Team’s season ended with a 2-1 loss to Belgium on Tuesday in the Round of 16, there was an urge to slow clap.
You know, the goosebump-inducing clap that happens in movies when the lovable underdog finally gains acceptance by all the cool kids? Yeah, it was that kind of moment.
The U.S. had played valiantly in a game in which it was a significant underdog. It scratched and clawed and saved and missed and created the most aggravating and invigorating soccer moment in U.S. history. And it wasn’t just U.S. fans that sat on the edge of their seats for every Tim Howard save or shot that took the wrong bounce. It seemed like the world was invested, a world that has begun to embrace the United States as a true soccer entity.
“Speaking with other fans from other countries, it’s the team spirit that’s the best thing that the U.S.A. has got,” said Chris Owen, who is from Belgium. “They’ve already won the respect of many different countries. I don’t think there’s a perception problem there.
“This World Cup has been a really good thing for the USA and hopefully it will keep growing.”
[Related: Human wall Tim Howard sets World Cup record in U.S. loss to Belgium ]
Heading into the World Cup, the United States was an afterthought by the rest of the soccer world. It was mocked constantly for its professional league, the MLS, because any European players that came over to play in it were well past their prime and looking for an easy paycheck. A country with more than 300 billion inhabitants couldn’t field a competitive team because attention was placed on football, basketball and baseball.
“It the same for a lot of nations,” Owen said. “If you want to be the best and the highest level in the national team, then, really, you’re players have to play in the top leagues and there’s not perhaps enough of the American squad playing at the highest level.”
But the success of the United States in this World Cup and the subsequent fan support has caused the world to sit up and take notice. Even Belgium defender Vincent Kompany took a minute out of his celebration to send this tweet to his 1.7 million followers.
This tournament has put respect for United States soccer at an all-time high. Clive Warrell, an England fan who was watching the game in a bar near Copacabana Beach, couldn’t stop raving about the United States and then made a very bold statement:
“I spend a lot of time in the U.S. and I like what they’re doing up there. They’re trying to push the game, they’re bringing in good players and every year they get better and better,” Warrell said. “I think in two World Cups' time they’ll be contenders for the World Cup.”
Insert record scratch here.
That last sentence is one that anyone who has followed soccer in the U.S. would never expect to hear from a foreigner, especially one that is a major supporter of the English Premier League, which is widely considered the best soccer in the world. Warrell explained his prediction by saying the U.S. National Team is a lot like the Premiership because both have utilized foreign talent to get better. The lone goal in Tuesday’s match, after all, was by Julian Green, a German.
But how long will this worldwide love affair with U.S. soccer continue?
With the team eliminated, will people turn their attention back to the start of college football and the NFL and leave the summer of “futbol” in the rear view? That will be the true litmus test of soccer in the United States. This is a country with no real soccer past on which to dwell, only a future to embrace.
“I live in New York now, and before I came out here [to the World Cup], the atmosphere in the bars and the restaurants was fantastic,” Owen said. “It really looks like it’s gaining momentum. But the real acid test is in four years' time [in Russia] when the time difference shifts. Will all the pubs be filled with American fans then? Will the momentum keep going?
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