Does America like soccer now? Is that what’s been going on in front of my soccer-loving eyes? Or has all the recent support for the United States men’s national soccer team’s performance at the 2014 World Cup just been the usual World Cup summer mix of patriotism and nothing else to watch on ESPN?
Is this going to be Major League Soccer’s time to shine? Or will we once again forget about all things soccer from the time the final whistle blows on July 13 in Brazil until things kick off again in Russia in 2018?
It was time to find out.
I had previously visited Buffalo Wild Wings for the opening game of the World Cup June 12 between Croatia and host Brazil with two fellow soccer enthusiasts, who are area coaches at the high school level. I’ll be frank, it was not packed. There were a handful of jerseys, including my own No. 10 Brazilian Ronaldinho jersey from 2006, and some general exclamations when goals were scored or supposed fouls occurred — including, of course, Brazil’s iffy penalty kick that had us all groaning about the quality of officiating that we might be seeing for the rest of the World Cup (which for the record, has actually been pretty good, in my opinion) — but did Sandusky’s BW3 look like the streets of Rio de Janeiro or an English pub?
Absolutely not. But of course, the U.S. wasn’t playing in that game.
On Thursday, I once again set out for BW3, this time to watch the U.S. take on Germany for their third game at the group stage level.
There was a greater opportunity than anyone expected for the Americans to escape death, or at least to escape the ‘Group of Death’, Group G.
I won’t rehash all the storylines surrounding this game, but on the off-chance you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks or so, it was a pretty big game with a lot of interesting factors.
And though the U.S. went in with an unexpected four points from a win over Ghana and a tie with Portugal, advancement was not guaranteed.
Anyway, I made my way to BW3 at 11 a.m. Thursday to ensure I caught all of the pre-game commentary, not wanting to miss a moment of seeing former players and current ESPN analysts Alexi Lalas and Michael Ballack go back and forth on the enormous screens — and, found out that BW3 opens at 11 a.m. So, I walked in with employees. Two tables over, a group of servers were cleaning off menus.
But I wasn’t the only one.
There was a table of seven fans in various red, white and blue garb to my left. And one was wearing a USA scarf. Unfortunately, she and her party declined to be interviewed. With just 25 minutes until game time, I was the only one in BW3 wearing a USA jersey. Where were the fans? A few minutes later, men in business casual sat down next to me ... these were not Men in Blazers.
Two groups of young people seated in front of and behind me. Ah, summer break. Various red, white and blue apparel. Much giggling, no interest in me or my pitch to interview. Finally, with about 10 minutes before noon, I spot a USA track jacket and friend in red shirt. Yes. (I quickly recognized that the track jacket belonged to Jon Kijowski, my former co-assistant girls soccer coach at Huron and the new Norwalk boys JV soccer coach).
Tables were filling. Some jerseys appeared, but there were still empty tables. At kickoff, I was in the zone, watching avidly, but still managed to notice that tables were slowly filling up.
The game, well, it was not the best I’ve seen. In fact, I scrawled “Ghana 2.0” on my page of notes seven minutes into the match, indicating my thoughts that our possession was just as awful as it was in our opening game against the Africans.
Then it happened. No, no, not the game. That was less than stellar.
But a young boy and his father sat down off to my left. The boy’s face was glued to the screen, his mouth hanging open. He sat right next to his father on one side of the table, both of them facing the game. This was it. This was the future of American soccer. It was beautiful to see.
At halftime, with the teams in a scoreless tie, I went over and met the young fan. Drew Thomas, 9, of Norwalk, plays for a pair of soccer teams — Internationals West out of Westlake and the Norwalk Travel league.
He told me he thought the game was good (so far) and that Jozy Altidore was his favorite player for the U.S. We commiserated about Jozy’s injury and I asked him if he liked the MLS. Here he got a little shy and his parents, April and Andy, told me he follows the Columbus Crew and that one of his friends owns season tickets and keeps him updated on the team’s progress. Excellent.
April also added that they were planning on taking him to a game for his birthday. Even better. I name-dropped and told them of my friend and fellow-Cleveland State University soccer alum Josh Williams, who’s a regular starting defender for the Crew. They seemed most impressed.
During the first half, and after talking with Drew, I noticed that BW3 had really filled up. There was a smattering of jerseys — none German, thankfully — and the stars and stripes were making an appearance. I made my way over to the bar and sat down with Kijowski and his friend in red, Greg Acuna, of Findlay, for the remainder of halftime and throughout the second half. The duo had played defense together for Heidelberg University’s soccer team.
Our thoughts were similar after the first half of play.
“I’m a little nervous right now,” Kijowski said. “I think we’re getting outplayed. We’re lucky to be 0-0 right now. We’ve got to pick it up in the second half.”
Kijowski and Acuna both follow the Columbus Crew and had similar thoughts on the U.S. team’s new supporters.
“I like it,” Kijowski said of the new fans. “I hope it really starts to catch — it’s like every four years, everyone’s into it, then they kind of fade away. No one really follows the Premier League, La Liga, or MLS or anything, but I’m hoping with all this, it’ll pick up again. The MLS has showed a bunch of growth this year and the past few years, so it’s getting there.”
Added Acuna, “I think it’s kind of like the the Olympics. They just want to cheer for America.”
So, would America continue to watch soccer after the World Cup? Or will they forget about it, once again, until 2018?
The game ended 1-0 in favor of Germany. It was not the kind of game or result that Americans like. The fans — who showed up late, cheered avidly and groaned appropriately — left immediately afterwards.
Perhaps that’s all America can do. Show up late, chant “USA” and leave when it’s done. Or maybe, just maybe, the sport is getting enough traction with young fans like Drew Thomas and enough airtime and social media support to make a real leap forward in the states.
I don’t have the answer yet, but time will tell. And I believe.