Are Americans changing their World Cup tune?

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Maybe it's the United States' thrilling and semi-unexpected run to the finals of last summer's Confederations Cup.

Maybe it is ESPN pouring huge resources and broadcast time into world soccer – ever think there'd be an Ireland-France debate on "First and Ten"? (Hey, that guy from the Gillette commercial hand-balled it! Too bad he's not the gentleman of Tiger Woods.)

Maybe it's that in this Internet-based, user-driven media culture, soccer fans no longer need to convince stodgy old newspaper sports editors about what's important. They can tweet it themselves.

Maybe it's that the generations of American kids who spent their childhood running around suburban soccer fields have finally come of age – most understand the basics of the game, joining our forever flow of immigrants.

Maybe it's the shootout finale to last month's MLS championship game – you didn't need to watch a dribble of the season to find the last moments of Real Salt Lake's victory over David Beckham's L.A. Galaxy compelling.

Maybe it's that the World Cup will take place in the mysterious and history-rich nation of South Africa. President Obama is going to travel there to meet Nelson Mandela. If nothing else, it's an intriguing cross-over backdrop, like Beijing for the Olympics. The visuals of this event are going to be incredible (Charlize Theron provided a good start on the selection show).

Maybe it's that Americans want to get in on the party the rest of the world conducts – who's against men singing and drinking inside pubs in the middle of the day?

Whatever it is, now more than ever it at least seems there is interest in the World Cup. (Don't expect me to find something, like, facts to base this column on; I'm going straight anecdotal here.)

The United States wound up in Group C with England, Algeria and Slovenia in what turned out to be the greatest luck of the draw outside of being drawn into host South Africa's group. The biggest key will be getting out of that group and into the 16-team tournament, and the Americans' chances couldn't be any better.

Personally, I think nothing did more to boost this surge of attention than what the United States did on the field last summer in South Africa. The Americans' run to the Confederations Cup final was gripping, it was exciting and it was easy to get caught up in it.

I've long argued that the World Cup would go big in America when the Americans can win it (or at least compete to win it). We're not unique in this, but we're especially programmed to follow the sports that we succeed in.

If Team USA can make a run next June and July at the World Cup, then the States will be enraptured.

No, soccer isn't going to replace football or basketball; the MLS isn't going to start selling out 100,000-seat stadiums. People will follow, though. It wasn't 16 months ago that sports bars went silent for the 200-meter individual medley, and that's a sentence I never thought I'd write. That's the power of winning – and Michael Phelps.

If we're in it, we're into it.

It's been a perfect little storm of attention-grabbing moments. The Confederations Cup filled in some slow moments of the sporting summer. The Thierry Henry handball last month, which denied Ireland entry to the World Cup, gave America (essentially ESPN) an easy debate topic (video replay for the refs? an actual replay for the teams?). Then came the MLS Cup final, the shootout bleeding into "SportsCenter," grabbing an audience far larger than expected.

Suddenly, there was something soccer-related to discuss.

So now I believe more people are going to pay attention. And so goes the pressure on the Americans. They've coveted it; now they have to deal with it. A dreadful performance and they're once again back (practically) to square one – the lows of the spotlight often being lower than the highs are high.

If nothing else, we have a chance to make a run. Not to win it, but to push deep into the knockout stages. We're the Gonzaga of this thing; and who doesn't like being Gonzaga? We can get to the Round of Eight … who knows, maybe more.

We can also fail to get out of pool play.

In the Confederations Cup last summer, the United States defeated Spain – the best team in the world – 2-0. On our best day, anything's possible.

"We need to expect to be able to compete that way all the time with these teams," Landon Donovan said at the time.

And that will be the key: Prove to the American public that the expectation is being competitive with anyone in the world.

We star some familiar names – most notably the veteran Donovan, who needs to respond from a disappointing 2006 World Cup. We have Tim Howard in goal and he is as good as any keeper on the planet. Internationally, our team is known for its toughness, organization and confidence.

Who doesn't like that kind of a team?

It just feels like, for the first time in a while, you can get the general sports fan to admit they're at least aware that the World Cup is coming – and might even watch some of it. Not that they can name five players, but just the promise that maybe we can do something, maybe it'll be worth checking out.

It's a step, just a step. Perhaps a big one, though.

Now we just need to win some games at the World Cup. If so, America will finally be watching what the rest of the world already has been.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist.

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