The wonderful run by the U.S. men's national soccer team in the World Cup is over, which means it's time for some people who love soccer to try just a bit too hard to make it mean more than it does.
To be sure, Tim Howard was spectacular. People who say they don't care about soccer cared passionately about this. In a country driven by winning, Americans by the millions realized that there can be both joy and dignity in missing the quarterfinals.
But let's not over-interpret it – although I'm afraid some of us already have. If you haven't heard the talk, it goes something like this:
The 2014 World Cup will take soccer to an entirely new level in this country. People will want to follow these players on TV, if not in person. U.S. kids will want to play the game even more. And, if you don't love soccer now, there must be something wrong with you.
Whenever there's a big international sports event involving a U.S. team, the nation invariably rallies behind it. It has happened in ice hockey at various Olympic Games, most memorably with the Miracle on Ice in 1980, and as recently as 4 1/2 months ago in Sochi. It has happened in women's soccer several times, especially with the historic 1999 Women's World Cup. It happened in Olympic gymnastics in 1984, and again in the women's team event in 1996. And on and on it goes.
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It's foolhardy for fans of any international sport to believe that the sport itself has captured the attention of the nation. We fall in love with the team and the sport and the moment because of national pride. Nationalism draws most of us to these games, not a particular love of soccer or hockey or gymnastics. Those are our boys. Those are our girls. That's why we care.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't give soccer its due. It's the world's game even if it's not ours, so when a U.S. team plays well against nations that live and die with the sport, it's especially gratifying. Because the World Cup builds for several weeks, it creates its own natural crescendo, hence the street parties that never would be possible for a one-off Olympic event, especially in the winter. (Memo to Major League Baseball: After seeing how those big afternoon games bring people together, why not do the unthinkable and consider going back to a day game or two for the World Series?)
And because several generations of U.S. children have grown up playing a sport that their parents or grandparents still barely understand, a natural fan base has developed that can't begin to rival that of football, basketball and baseball on a daily basis, but is significant nonetheless.
Now, time for a reality check: You think Tim Howard is big today? He is, no doubt about it. But gymnast Mary Lou Retton was bigger. (She also won, which is something Howard and Co. of course did not.) Soccer star Brandi Chastain made the covers of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and People in the same week, something that's never happened to anyone else, in sports or life. And let's not even begin to talk about the national appeal of Olympic hockey players Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig and their teammates in the winter of 1980.
What exactly will change because of the thrilling World Cup run by the Americans? New fans were born for sure. But are the best boy athletes in the nation going to stop dreaming of careers in the NFL, the NBA and MLB and start planning for life as soccer players because the United States made the Round of 16? Probably not.
So, while U.S. optimism dictates that the team will go further in the 2018 World Cup, reality says it might not.
There's certainly no need to force it. When some U.S. broadcasters change their grammar to sound British for a few weeks, they're trying too hard. When some fans want to tell us that this year's World Cup – not 1994′s, or 2002′s, or 2010′s – will be the one to change everything, why don't we wait and see?
A moment like this should be remembered not for what it might lead to, but for what it was.
World Cup fans fill Mass Ave in Indianapolis for a viewing party of the Belgium vs. USA soccer game on July 1, 2014. Anna Reed/The Star