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Nations: America displays real love for soccer

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Jeff Nations (Buy photo)


Incredible.

That's the word that springs to mind in witnessing the U.S. squad's journey in the 2014 World Cup that ended with a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in the round of 16 on Tuesday in Salvador, Brazil.

It's not really that game or any of the others I'm describing, though -- it's the interest in the American team ... in America ... that's floored me in this World Cup. Fans clad in red-white-and-blue packed the stands, and those who couldn't make the trip to South America gathered by the thousands for viewing parties across the country to watch their national team go toe-to-toe with the world's best.

That the run ended with a loss was no surprise. It never is, since the U.S. team is perennially viewed as the plucky upstart in this particular sport. For as long as I can remember, soccer in America has been "on the rise."

After seeing what appears to be genuine passion among Americans for our national team, and not the sort of fleeting fascination we see every four years in the Olympics for sports like curling or table tennis, I'm becoming convinced that soccer may really have arrived in the U.S. for good.

I'm not all the way there, though, not yet. We have seen this enthusiasm before, after all.

Remember 1994? That, too, was billed as a watershed moment for soccer in the U.S. As the host country, the American squad delivered an inspiring effort that included a win over a dazzling squad from Colombia before dropping a hard-fought 1-0 decision to powerhouse Brazil in the round of 16.

That wave of success didn't carry over to the 1998 World Cup in France, where the U.S. took a politically-charged 2-1 loss to Iran in group play and failed to advance to the knockout round.

America's fortunes again took an upswing in 2002, as the U.S. stunned Portugal 3-2 and tied host country South Korea 1-1 to advance out of group play. From there, the U.S. notched one of its greatest-ever victories with a 2-0 defeat of rival Mexico before bowing out to eventual World Cup runner-up Germany in a 1-0 decision.

Instead of surging, the U.S. faltered in the next World Cup as the Americans failed to advance out of group play in 2006.

The predictable cycle continued in 2010, this time in South Africa. The resurgent U.S. squad opened group play with a fantastic 1-1 draw to stun England, followed that up with a 2-2 tie against Slovenia and secured the group win by beating Algeria 1-0. America's old nemesis, Ghana, the team that had bumped the U.S. squad from the 2006 World Cup, awaited in the Round of 16 and the African squad again ended a promising run by the Americans with a 2-1 win.

Based on that crude pattern of success, followed by failure, this year's World Cup should have been another disappointment for American soccer fans. After all, the U.S. entered pool play in the fearsomely nicknamed "Group of Death" with Germany, Portugal and Ghana awaiting. It looked like it could indeed by a brief appearance once again for the U.S.

Instead, this American team flexed its muscles early with a stunning early goal in the opening match against Ghana en route to a 2-1 victory. Clint Dempsey, the forward who'd become the face of the U.S. team following coach Jurgen Klinsmann's controversial decision to leave longtime star Landon Donovan off the squad, flashed through the box with a breathtaking run to finish with a goal a mere 32 seconds into the match.

Portugal's maddening late goal forced a 2-2 draw in the Americans' next group match, denying the U.S. an outright chance to advance. Facing traditional power Germany in the final match of group play, the U.S. played credibly in a 1-0 loss. It wasn't exciting, but it was enough to advance for Tuesday's knockout match against Belgium.

For 90 minutes, the U.S. -- specifically goalkeeper Tim Howard -- held the rock-solid Belgian squad at bay. Howard made 16 saves, a record for an American goalie at the World Cup, but Belgium finally broke through with two goals in extra time. Julian Green did get the U.S. closer with a goal in the closing minutes, but it wasn't enough.

Howard emerged as a genuine hero for U.S. soccer -- but at 35 years old, he's probably seen his last World Cup action. The same could well be true of Dempsey, the 31-year-old star of Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders. He'll be 35 the next time the World Cup rolls around, in Russia.

That's the maddening part of the World Cup -- just as the best American players begin to emerge, the window abruptly closes and won't open again for at least four more years. It's a feeling I'm sure is shared by fans of all countries, who fret about aging stars and the future of their national team.

Americans still lag behind other countries in terms of transferring allegiance to professional soccer -- for every MLS fan in the U.S., it seems there must be two or three Chelsea or Real Madrid "supporters" tuning in to those international matches. Hooliganism, we all hope, is a phenomena the U.S. won't copy. Passion is different, though, and this might be it -- finally -- as casual American sports fans shift their interest level from curiosity to a genuine zeal for soccer.

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com



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