When the USMNT played Ghana in the World Cup on Monday, it drew NFL–caliber TV ratings, and that’s not counting all of the people watching in bars and big viewing parties like in Chicago’s Grant Park.
I was there in Grant Park; I saw three guys climb up in a tree Zacchaeus-style to get a better view of the giant screen over thousands of standing fans. The World Cup is an event, it’s a novelty, and Americans love an excuse to wave the flag and have a party. This may signal a turning point for soccer in America, or it may be like the Olympics: something we enjoy every few years and then forget about in between.
While millions of Americans were watching when John Brooks got his game-winning header on Monday, few had heard of him before. This is partly because he’s very young, so we haven’t had many opportunities to stumble across him; but this is also because in the States there are very few soccer-oriented household names. That’s the last piece of the American soccer puzzle: our own narrative.
I threw myself into soccer about three years ago, when I finally had someone willing to explain the “plot” and “characters” to me (thank you, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies). There’s a reason you see people making Game of Thrones jokes in reference to various soccer games. There are so many leagues, so many teams, so many players that it’s overwhelming to jump in and try to figure it out on your own.
Understanding the rules of the game isn’t what makes you care about it. It’s drama on grass, with as much plot taking place off the field as on (not unlike other leagues we love, from LeBron’s Decision to the Harbaugh/Carroll rivalry). America hasn’t really had jaw-dropping plot twists in the world of soccer, unless you count the current absence of Landon Donovan.
Imagine if Jozy Altidore and his mangled hamstring were essentially relegated to injured reserves and coach Jurgen Klinsmann could call up someone to round out his 23-man roster. He said publicly a few weeks ago that, if such a circumstance should arise, Donovan would be the first man he’d call. Imagine Landon hopping a plane and taking the field opposite Portugal on Sunday. The most casual of fans know who Landon is, and they know what a redemption story looks like. Imagine millions of American eyes staring at that, waiting to see what happens next.
Unfortunately, the rosters are locked, so that’s not a possibility.
At least through Sunday, American eyes will be watching. American attention can be (and will be) captured by narrative, not by tactics or numbers. Both goals scored against Ghana were scored by quiet but competent players, not big personalities. Clint Dempsey is an amazing, accomplished soccer player, but he’s not new; he’s a guy from Texas who does his job and doesn’t make a lot of noise.
As much as I like John Brooks, I’m not convinced your average American will remember his name a year from now.
Winning is fun, but tell me a story. In the next couple of weeks, we could fall head-over-heels in love with this team, but we need that last little something we can’t resist, and it’s not going to be “pretty futbol.” Maybe Jozy will make a heroic return ala Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, or maybe Dempsey already fulfilled that role with his bloody nose. Maybe one or more of the young dual-citizen players like John Brooks will come up big against Germany, their “other” country, and then wave the Stars and Stripes with pride, dispelling any illusion that they are sell-swords who only came to the States because they “couldn’t make the German squad.”
Maybe Mix Diskerud will charm American hearts the way he’s charmed mine. Or maybe, we’ve already had our World Cup moment, and we’ll soon be moving on to other things — but I hope not.