May 29, 2010
By Charles Cuttone
For U.S. change has been for the better
PHILADELPHIA---When one reaches a certain age—and I don’t know what that age is, other than I am sure I have reached it---you have a tendency to look back at things and remember how they were and to think about how much has changed. Some remember the good old days, perhaps a little too fondly than they really were and others decry how much things have changed, usually for the worse.
As the United States National Team prepares to head off to its sixth straight World Cup, there is no doubt things have changed for American soccer. All for the better.
Take the very nature of the send-off series. Saturday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field was attended by some 55,000 fans. More than two hours before kickoff, parking lots were already filled with fans tailgating, playing soccer and hackey sack, dressed in the stars and stripes, and one even dressed as a chicken—at least I think it was a chicken -- though I am not sure why.
Flashback, 20 years to the United States’ send-off before the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The final game then was also played in Pennsylvania, in Hershey to be exact, at a 15,000-seat stadium built during the depression by chocolate baron Milton Hershey.
There were few if any tailgaters, no Sam’s Army, no American Outlaws and only 12,063 fans in the stands. The press contingent numbered about a dozen. The game was not on TV and the internet had yet to be invented. The only way to get any score updates with any kind of immediacy was to call a 1-900 pay-per-call service, programmed by yours truly.
The U.S. and its few fans were just happy to see the team qualify for its first World Cup in 40 years.
Moving back to the present, almost all of the U.S. games are televised. When they are not, as in the case of the qualifier against Honduras last year, it creates an uproar among the fans. The U.S. is now not only expected to qualify, but to do well at the World Cup. When it does not, heads are expected to roll, as they did after a dismal performance in Germany four years ago. In fact, this is the year the United States was supposed to win the World Cup, at least according to a now largely forgotten Project 2010 outline that the Federation tried to implement more than a decade ago. Believe me, winning the World Cup is not going to happen this year, maybe not any time in the near future, but that’s ok. There are a lot of soccer nations with longer histories and traditions than the U.S. that have never won the Cup.
The point is, there is a growing soccer culture in this country. Bars will show the World Cup games, some of them at odd hours, and fans will crowd into those bars to watch the games. Not because it is the only place they can see them (like a lot of the World Cup games in 1990), but to cheer, groan and drink with other fans. I’ll bet some will even have their faces painted red, white and blue.
There are some who still say soccer will never make it in this country. I am not sure what “make it” means. Sure, Major League Soccer still has a long way to go, and the other levels of the sport are not as solid as they could be, but at the National Team level, soccer has made it.