"Soccer is about to cement its place as the worst 'sports bar sport' EVER..." -- Me at the 89-minute mark of the USA-Algeria game today
"THIS IS AWESOME!!!" -- Me hugging strangers at the 91-minute mark of the USA-Algeria game today
And therein lies the most fascinating thing about soccer to me. It's polarizing, and not just polarizing from a "big picture/American sports landscape" viewpoint (i.e. is it a niche sport or is it a gradually ascending major sport?), but it's polarizing from half to half, minute to minute. I fell in and out of love with soccer more times this morning than I did with this entire past season of The Office (the second most polarizing thing in our country, by the way...).
However, in the end, much like Dwight Shrute did seemingly every Thursday evening the past three months, Landon Donovan bailed out Bob Bradley, his teammates, and it's not an exaggeration to say that, for the time being, he bailed out the sport of soccer in the United States.
Sports fans love to play the "what if" game; it's a big part of the engine that makes the sports talk world go 'round. Hell, I wrote 4,000 words about "What if Gordon Hayward's shot had gone in?" after Butler came within inches of knocking off Duke for what would have been a highly improbable but not impossible NCAA men's basketball championship.
Go ahead and take the magnitude of that Butler "what if" and multiply it by a factor of a thousand. Because while it's now safe to say that the United States' winning its group has put the Americans in a dark horse type position to make an improbable-but-not-impossible World Cup run (ironically, the type of run Butler made during March Madness), the downside to the United States finishing that Algeria game 0-0 would have been a near deathblow to soccer here in the United States, at least in the near term.
For a sport that has grinded and grinded and grinded some more to gain near-mainstream acceptance here (and let's be honest, for many Americans it's still closer to tolerance than acceptance), limping home with three draws in a very winnable group would have put soccer back on the rear burner at best, and onto skeptics' laughing stock lists at worst. The abundance of World Cup coverage on ESPN would have become the equivalent of your teenage son's garage band trying to sell out Madison Square Garden -- friends, family, and diehard crappy garage band fanatics would buy tickets and that's about it. Bringing in Ted McGinley to play striker would be the only thing left to push soccer over the shark.
You would think that American soccer experts in the media would, in some sense, "have the sport's back" and tell us that soccer in the United States has ascended above being possibly killed dead in its tracks but one lackluster international performance, but ESPN's Rob Stone said on my show that is absolutely not the case. Stone has covered multiple World Cups and been one of the media faces of soccer in our country for over a decade now.
His assessment? "You are judged on the biggest stage. For millions of American fans out there, this is all they're gonna see of the men's national team, and If these three games are dogs, you're going to have all the critics jumping out saying 'Same ol' thing'."
So true...and so close to happening. Soccer may not have been about to die in the United States, but certainly it was about to go through another four years of chemotherapy. And yet, in typically polarizing fashion, soccer goes from boring and misunderstood to heart-pounding and unifying all in one rush upfield.
Jozy Altidore missing an open net in the first half, Clint Dempsey hitting a post in the second half, and the latest in a litany of questionable officiating in United States' games (a first-half goal by Dempsey called back on a dubious offsides call) -- none of those things matter now. The United States won its group, a group that was supposed to be won by England.
When asked about dark horses in the World Cup before it started, Stone wisely predicted that the "lesser South American teams," meaning countries not named "Brazil" or "Argentina," would be solid selections -- Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay. "All face stiff competition and have game changers up top," said Stone. Suffice it to say, all three of those teams are leading their groups as I write this (Translation: Rob Stone is smart.).
Add in the fact that Brazil and Argentina have been as dominant as expected, and South America has essentially established itself as the college football SEC equivalent in international soccer -- two traditional world powers (Brazil and Argentina playing the role of Alabama and Florida) and three dangerous "live" dogs that play stiff competition year round (We'll call Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay the Arkansas, Ole Miss, and South Carolina of international soccer .)
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Look the hell out -- another riveting win by the United States in the knockout round and we may be asked to secede from North America and become part of South America (Aggie fans are rooting hard for this outcome so they can at least secede from something.). Safe to say we're happy with our continued independence from Europe, who with a shaky England, an equally shaky Spain, and an imploding France is basically the ACC of the World Cup. (Yes, Korea is the Big East, and North Korea is Syracuse.)
"What If Gordon Hayward's Shot Had Gone In?" was a story we could analyze and internalize minutes after Hayward's shot rattled out. Fortunately for the United States, "What If Landon Donovan's Shot Hit The Crossbar?" is a story that is still unfolding. We know the real story already has a happy ending, just how happy remains to be seen.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.