It was a small point that was rather overlooked in the hysteria that followed England’s 1-0 win against Slovenia in their final group match on Wednesday afternoon but, in the cold light of day and with the complete schedule for the second round of the competition now available for all to see, finishing second in their group has come at a heavy cost for England. Should they somehow scramble through against Germany tomorrow, they are likely to face Argentina in the quarter-finals, and should they manage to win that as well (and we’re stretching the bounds of credibility here), Spain could their be their semi-final opposition.
What, though, of the group winners, the United States of America? Just as England’s potential path to the final seems insurmountable, Landon Donovan’s goal in stoppage time at the end of their final group match against Algeria has opened up a draw that makes a place in the semi-finals of the competition a definite possibility. They play a Ghana team which is the youngest in the tournament and hasn’t scored a goal from open play in their three matches so far this evening, and the winners of that match will play South Korea or Uruguay in the quarter-finals. They could, of course, be out of the competition by tonight – if this tournament has proved nothing else, it has proved that no-one can take their progress through it for granted – but, to the extent that there can be a winnable draw in the latter stages of the World Cup, this is surely it.
The British tabloid press has conveniently gone quiet on the subject of the demeaning headlines that they led with when the draw for the finals was made and on the morning of the match against the United States, but the perception remains in Britain that America still doesn’t really “get” football, when nothing could be further from the truth. Since hosting the 1994 World Cup finals, the growth of the game in America since then has been steady with just a couple of setbacks, and the future of the game there seems bright. The game in the America is building its own culture, and much of this culture feels as healthy, if not more so, than in England.
The search for a pivotal moment in this development has been a common one, but it feels as though the development of the game in America has been a series of small, incremental steps over the last sixteen years. Hosting the World Cup finals in 1994 and the establishment of Major League Soccer were, of course, critical, but just as important were the womens team’s victory on home turf at the 1999 Women’s World Cup and the progress made by the men’s team in 2002, when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. In the meantime, MLS has slowly developed into a strong domestic league, studiously learning from the mistakes that led to the collapse of its best known predecessor, the NASL, in 1984. Perhaps, though, that pivotal moment came on Wednesday, with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria. It is already being described as “the shot heard round the world”, and this montage of celebrations of it surely dispel any continuing bleatings that American supporters don’t “get” football:
Key to the success of the 2010 tournament in America has been expanded and improved television coverage. This year, the World Cup is being shown on the ESPN and ABC networks, making the progress of the American team available to all. In addition, to this, the coverage – particularly that of ESPN – has been received with near-universal praise. Prior to the tournament, the decision to bring in reporters and commentators from outside to cover it for them was met with a degree of criticism (most notably in the decision to bring in British commentators such as Sky Sports’ Martin Tyler and Ian Darke), but much of this criticism has abated thanks to a combination of the success of the team and the exuberance of the commentators themselves.
In print and online, the American media has also more than caught up with the tournament. MLS has long had an outstanding independent web presence, but the mainstream media is now also covering the tournament with a different timbre to previous tournaments. Of course, the right-wing nuts are still there, labouring various political points about a game that they don’t like (in common with many other aspects of life, these people have a habit of describing anything that they don’t like as “unamerican” or “socialist” and then providing increasingly tenuous reasons as to why this should be). These shrill voices, however, seem less and less in tune with the way that the wind is blowing in America at the moment. Seventeen million people watched the match against England, and the average television audience for their three matches has been just over eleven million – just short of seventy per cent higher than for their three group matches at the last tournament in Germany.
Perhaps the most interesting question is that of what will happen to the game in America after the tournament has ended. It is possible that it will take the feel of an “olympic” sport – subject to massive upward spikes in interest every four years, while the domestic game takes a lower profile. Average MLS attendances for 2010 (MLS starts in March and has taken a break for the World Cup) were up 10% before the tournament started, and are likely to continue to rise. The best-supported club, Seattle Sounders, have been watched by over 36,000 people per match so far this season, a figure that compares favourably with the biggest leagues in Europe. In addition to this, the USA team has been reported as being – the hosts excepted, of course – the best-supported at this summer’s World Cup.
A further increase in popularity will likely see MLS franchise-holders seek to captalise on their greater largesse, but which way should they turn if their league is to grow? It may be tempting to turn to Europe for inspiration, but they would be best advised to avoid the debt-sodden English Premier League, the Spanish Liga, which only two teams now can conceivably win or Serie A and its sporadic accusations of match-fixing. The Bundesliga would offer a more positive direction for MLS to take, but perhaps the league should continue to do what it has been doing, building its own identity rather than seeking to become a facsimile of other leagues. Football in America will probably never usurp gridiron, baseball and basketball as America’s national sports – why ruin what they have worked so hard to build in trying?
With eighteen million registered players (a number that has been growing consistently for years), the United States of America has an opportunity to take its place at the very top table of world football over the coming decade. Indeed, it seems to already be ascending to that very position and even if the team should fail to progress in this year’s World Cup against Ghana later today, it seems inconceivable that the growth of the game there has reached anything like its apex. Moreover, the culture of the game in America feels healthy – healthier, at least, than in the crumbling empires of France, Italy and, perhaps, England. This particular long-anticipated change in football’s world order feels distinctly more imminent than it did a couple of months ago. How the USSF and MLS react to the events of this tournament will go a long way towards determining whether it becomes a reality.