SAO PAULO – It seems that everyone and everything here, at least when it comes to U.S. Soccer, is focused on everyone and everything back home.
Far, far from each watch party or crowded bar or packed city park or even a sold-out jersey rack or barrage of tweets or the run on Panini World Cup stickers, there's an understanding that America is attached in ways that it never has before.
For a sport that has spent decades being dismissed or disappointed, it's an understandably satisfying event.
Tim Howard is in his third World Cup, second as starting goalkeeper for the U.S. He has played 11 years in the English Premier League where he's made tens of millions of dollars. He's one of the best in the world, famous and respected.
Yet back in high school in New Jersey during the mid-to-late 1990s, he was constantly asked why he would choose soccer over basketball, where he could've been a low-major Division I recruit with likely no professional future.
So, yes, it makes sense. This day finally dawned.
And the sun isn't setting, which is why it's time to let it go caring about every last bit of proof of the game's growth, whether it's anecdotal or ratings based, just as it's time to stop worrying about every last random critic or troll trying to run you down, and time to stop ripping anyone not interested, and time to stop bashing casual fans who jump on the bandwagon with good intentions. No one at a Super Bowl party dismisses a guest for not watching the Buffalo Bills' second preseason game.
Soccer has turned the corner in the U.S., where it's an established sport capable of a massive following when the national team is in the big-event World Cup. Yet there is, and always will be, limitations based on the realities of how the professional version of the sport works.
All of this is OK. It's when the joy of the ride is ruined worrying about those who falsely say otherwise, or when backers completely overstate the future, that it becomes wearisome and counterproductive.
"We are a 'Soccer Nation,' " Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, tweeted last week and, um, no, we are not.
The United States may not even be an NFL nation (although that would be the closest thing) because the nation is too big and too diverse to be one of anything. We could be a movie nation or a gamer nation or a reality TV nation or alcohol nation or all kinds of nations.
February's Super Bowl, annually the biggest event of the year, was the most watched TV show ever with 111.5 million viewers. That's huge. Except there are 330 million Americans. Nothing is going to be all encompassing. It would be in a smaller, more homogeneous nation such as Colombia when Colombia plays a World Cup game.
Soccer should just play it cool, stop obsessing and stop looking around eagerly at approval from Americans back home. Just enjoy the ride, which is what the best adjusted of the soccer movement are doing.
"Four years ago was impressive and the fact it seems even bigger now is a testament to our country," Howard said Saturday at the U.S.'s training base here. "I don't know if we can get that type of electricity every weekend.
"I don't think that's where we are at as a country in terms of soccer fanaticism," Howard continued, "but it shows a lot that all the bars and pubs and restaurants are packed and it's all over social media. That says a lot."
It says enough. Howard plays professionally in England, for Everton now and previously for Manchester United. He has resisted calls to return to MLS because he says he loves the energy and competition of the EPL. He understands the differences.
This is great. It isn't sustainable. Twenty-seven million people tuned in to watch the 2010 USA-Canada hockey game and then the NHL went back to being the NHL, a big business but not the center of a "Hockey Nation."
When the U.S. team is eventually eliminated from the World Cup, interest will drop considerably, but what is left behind is a bigger core fan base than what was there four years ago. It stands to reason that, four years from now, it will be even bigger and even those that don't watch again for four years will be more inclined to get excited in 2018.
Stop acting like this is all a surprise.
"The ratings are fantastic and one of those few times, predicted," said Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer. "[We knew] if the U.S. does well here we are going to set ratings records. And we have. And I think that will continue.
"… That won't continue [however] after the World Cup," Gulati added. "No one imagines that's what it's going to be like the following week for a national team game. But the way I look at it, we are on a positive trend line when it comes to this sport."
[Related: Herrera: Mexico is ready to make history ]
There are natural hurdles to growth, though.
The best professional leagues are spread across the world, with four main ones siphoning American attention – EPL in England and Wales, La Liga in Spain, Liga MX in Mexico and MLS in the U.S. and Canada. Then there is Germany's Bundesliga, which is of high quality but lacks the same following as the others in America. Throw in the Champions League, which draws the best from all over Europe, and that's another outlet. Plus the nearly dozen or so games per year from the national team, either friendlies, tournaments or qualifying.
You need an abacus, an excellent cable system and a lot of free time to follow it all. In football and basketball, the best of the best just play in the States, 30 or so teams, right in your face, and not at odd hours or unusual days.
It's easier. It's centralized. There's no matching that. There never will be.
Part of this is the beauty of soccer. The uniqueness is a positive, the flavor and color from abroad enticing. It also means it's a pipe dream to believe your typical, time-constrained American is going to zero in on it all.
That's fine. Soccer is fine. It's fun. More people believe its fun. There's a real spot in the sports rotation for it. Gulati's trend line is strong – it won't sink in popularity.
So relax. Forget the trolls. Stop acting like any sign that anyone cares is a miracle. Stop hounding those who dare to be interested in something else. Stop demanding total devotion or nothing.
This is a new day, a new generation. So act like you belong because you do.
That's how the NFL does it.
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