My friend Stephen is the one of the biggest soccer fans I know.
He owns jerseys of teams located in European cities I couldn’t hope to find on a map.
He can discuss the relative strengths of teams and players in just about any league.
And — naturally — he’s following the World Cup with great interest.
Did you watch the U.S. game on Tuesday, I asked him in an email?
“Yeah, there’s a pub close to my house and a bunch of us went over to watch it.”
(Keep in mind, Stephen lives in the Central time zone, which means he was at the pub for a match starting at 8:30 … in the morning.)
Full disclosure: I watched the entire game as well, which is the first time I’ve done that since the final of the women’s World Cup back in 1999.
And when Landon Donovan’s missle found the back of the net in the 91st minute against Algeria, I let out a “Yeah!” audible only to me and the black lab suddenly awakened from his mid-morning slumber.
The reaction around the country was a tad more enthusiastic.
Suddenly, soccer is cool, and fans like Stephen aren’t sneered at as “kickball” fans.
But, here’s the thing — can it sustain? I’m guessing it won’t.
Don’t misunderstand. I think there’s going to be a major upswing in the number of kids playing soccer over the next few years, and even the number of adults who will play in rec leagues will likely increase.
(And anything that gets children off the couch and away from the Wii is OK by me.)
But I have to be convinced that there will be more TV sets tuned into MLS games when the World Cup ends.
Or that Premier League telecasts on ESPN will see a dramatic improvement in ratings.
I just don’t see it happening.
For all the good this World Cup has done — already — to increase interest in the sport in the U.S., the game itself just doesn’t hold up on television.
The lack of scoring is the major culprit, of course (and can’t somebody, somewhere, convince FIFA to at least massage the offside rule?) but I think soccer’s biggest obstacle is still the long-held belief in the U.S. — it’s OK for my kids to play, but I’m not watching for 90 minutes.
Remember the ’99 women’s World Cup? Brandi Chastain’s tournament-ending striptease notwithstanding, virtually everybody predicted a tremendous growth in soccer in the U.S. on the heels of the American championship.
Again, youth participation spiked but viewership, if anything, went down. A professional women’s league folded less than four years after the ’99 World Cup.
And it’s not just soccer. Throughout the championship series in the NBA and NHL, we were told that TV ratings were at all-time highs.
Well, they should be — it’s those sports’ signature events.
Same thing with soccer. We’re going to find out, I’m sure, that Saturday’s U.S.-Ghana matchup will be the most-watched soccer game in this country’s history.
But, like Olympic sports such as curling or bobsledding, most Americans only care every four years.
So I asked Stephen: Do you think the interest in soccer will continue to spike after the World Cup?
“Oh yeah,” he answered, “right until July 23.”
That would be the start of Saints training camp. (Did I mention? Stephen lives in New Orleans.)
Rob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.