“So what does this mean for soccer in America?” you hear yourself no longer asking, and the reason why you no longer ask it is not that the question has been decided, but that it’s been decided at long last that the question is stupid.
It’s always been a stupid question, though, because it assumes that the only reason for the sport to exist in America is “to arrive,” without actually defining what “arrival” entails.
So never mind whether the World Cup was America’s breakout moment (it probably wasn’t) or just one more we-love-big-events extravaganza (it was probably more than just that), because the answer to the question is . . . wait for it . . .
Who gives a damn?
This didn’t have to be the sport’s epiphany in America because that presumes it has to actually go anywhere. Sports are an individual enterprise – if you like it, fine. If you and some friends like it, all the better. Beyond that, it isn’t your problem. Take the fun the World Cup provided and swaddle yourself in it if you must. Just remember that nobody likes a proselytizer, and that if you think you can win converts by talking them into submission, you will have wasted energy (and perhaps a few layers of skin).
Soccer has grown organically for any number of reasons, and spending any time trying to trace its path from sub-cult to quasi-relevance shows only that you are too invested in the part of the enterprise that doesn’t matter.
Specifically, who gets the credit for whatever soccer is now, and is to be in the future. This is where “Who gives a damn?” comes in. The credit for the game’s slowly building popularity is actually organic – the new generation which has enjoyed the technologies that have made the world’s best players available to everyone at the press of a button. And nobody gets credit for something that happened slowly and naturally, unless the subject is soil erosion.
As for the U.S. team itself, the answer is even less clear. Teams rise and fall every four years almost by surprise. See Costa Rica and Colombia for the up-side, and Italy, Spain and England for the downs. There is no carryover from one tournament to the next, and the U.S. has exactly the same chance to be worse as it does to be better.
Besides, this was an odd set of games to evaluate. They beat Ghana despite being outplayed, tied Portugal despite outplaying the Portuguese, were controlled by the Germans and were dominated by the Belgians in one-goal losses. Their best player by far was the 35-year-old Tim Howard, and the much-hyped midfielder Michael Bradley found how difficult the games can be when good teams decide to take you out of them. When your goalie has to stand on his head to keep you in games you eventually lose, you have inadequacies that separate you from the elite. The young players didn’t make their mark until late against Belgium, and the older players are probably not going to be in Russia in four years.
On the other hand, the things America has always done well – grind out minutes and make games difficult – it did exceedingly well. The U.S. is boatloads of no fun to play, but their technical deficiencies when compared to the remaining eight teams remain profound. If Howard had merely been great rather than otherworldly, Belgium would have won 4-0.
But that’s Jurgen Klinsmann’s problem. The sport itself has a base that will ebb and flow with the calendar, but it is no longer just a hardly quadrennial. It isn’t football or baseball or basketball but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t even have to be what it was Tuesday, an electrifying and bittersweet show for the U.S. ardents. It just has to be a pleasant expenditure of time, and this World Cup was that – and not just because of the U.S.
So if you must give a damn about it, here’s what the World Cup means for soccer in America. It gave its proponents a good afternoon’s fun, and if you must find greater national or even cosmic portent than that, then you’re either a gasbag, a blowhard, a tendentious bore or a nag, and you’re way too invested in something that doesn’t matter. Soccer is just what it is, a sport among others, and if you need it to be something more, then you’re overthinking it way too much.