The USA came into the 2014 World Cup as a somewhat unknown entity. Coach Jurgen Klinsman selected a young, energetic squad, leaving out such veterans as Landon Donovan, and risking it all to present his vision of the future of US soccer at a major tournament. ‘The’ major tournament, indeed.
Goodness did Jurgen get it right. The USA has looked fit, fast and feisty, outplaying its two opponents, Ghana and Portugal for long periods of both games. The States has held leads in both games, and has played accomplished, fast-paced and energetic football. Before the tournament started, many experienced and respected pundits wrote Team USA’s chances off completely, as they were drawn in the universally accepted ‘Group of death’, alongside one of the best teams in Africa and two European power-houses. The States were easily the longest odds t qualify of the four teams in Group G.
Yet, here we are, with the USA oh-so-close to a dream ticket to the knockout rounds. The States will qualify for the knock-out round of this World Cup with any number of permutations. Put it this way, Germany and USA are prohibitive favourites to advance, Portugal and Ghana are seen as being done and dusted.
Happy faces all round, right?
The biggest surprise, perhaps, is how poorly many fans in the States are processing this unexpected joy-ride. The social networks have been absolutely clogged with astonishingly negative comments on the Portugal game in particular. ‘Fans’ are whining about a couple of mistakes, verbally clobbering a couple of players and even questioning some of the moves made by Klinsman. After a quick glance at the usual social networks, one would be forgiven for thinking the USA lost the game.
What’s happening here, is it a change in the way soccer is being viewed and talked about in the States? Is it a new-found sophistication among US soccer fans? Is it just the Internet being the Internet, about as negative place as you could ever be?
Interestingly just last week a major writer for the Boston Globe poured out an article on how soccer will never take off in the USA. His ‘point’ was old, labored and clichéd, however it serves as a jumping off point while looking at soccer in the States now as opposed to even just a decade ago, when most of the write in questions points were probably more apt.
Soccer is exploding across the States, not just at school level, not just as a recreational game, but professional too. Money is pouring into the bigger US soccer clubs, and great players are being attracted to playing in the States. The biggest hurdle for soccer to succeed in the States was always the mainstream US sporting media. People like the old-fashioned Globe reporter have never wanted, and still don’t want, soccer to take off in the United States.
They don’t understand it, it scares them and they don’t want to have to write about it.
The major US sporting media networks have, however, taken soccer and run with it. It is now heavily reported on a daily basis by all the big online entities, for example ESPN. The World Cup is front and center on ESPN right now, not only that but the USA’s qualification campaign was covered heavily by ESPN, and all the other big sporting websites.
Along with this increased coverage, the average US soccer fan has changed too. Evolved, if you will. This writer has followed soccer all his life, and has watched a terrifying number of hours of The Beautiful Game. I can see a seismic change in how the average US fan talks about the game. Essentially, the average soccer fan in the USA talks at a much more sophisticated level than previously. Particularly in the last 5 years or so. Tactics, technical terms and general soccer knowledge are discussed at a wildly improved level to, for example, the 90s. You would think that this increased understanding of the game itself would lead to a more patient approach from US fans.
Not so fast! Don’t ever forget the incredible negative power of the Internet, and Internet comment sections in particular. Michael Bradley is a fine midfielder, one of the better United States center-mids in living memory actually. He has a nice eye for a pass, a great engine and has had a terrific career all across Europe. Bradley was absolutely annihilated all across the social networks on Sunday night and Monday morning, with some of the rhetoric being slung at him shocking even for the Internet. Bradley made one or two mistakes, very small errors when played out across the 90 minutes of the game. Even smaller when you take into account his stellar career to date. That’s just one of the examples. Even Clint Dempsey drew some ire for missing a chance or two (despite almost winning the game for the States).
There’s no point in chastising the average US soccer fan for over-reacting to the late equaliser. This is the state of affairs now, with success comes expectations. Instead, we are left with the overall issue that plagues the Internet today. More people want to rush onto an Internet comment section and enter a cutting, angry negative comment than people that want to provide some kind of positive communication to the commentary thread. People just want to be angry, ugly, and more often than not, rude. Sunday night’s result was a sensationally good result for the USA against a tough European opponent.
It just wasn’t good enough to stave off the massed, hysterical trolls of the Internet.