American soccer is winning, and it will keep winning

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Every World Cup seems to bring out its enemies in the U.S. You know who they are: The grumpy naysayers who insist soccer is un-American; the joyless pedants who cling to their guns and baseball, complaining about a lack of scoring; the bitter-enders who, to this day, cannot tolerate the delicate balance of a draw (sorry, a tie).

Every four years, they make the same noises — like shamans in a cave mumbling over beads and rabbit pelts — thinking their incantations may have wider effect in the changing world around them.

But they are on the wrong side of history.

No matter the result from Thursday’s game between the United States and Germany, this year’s World Cup has proven yet again that American soccer is winning and will keep winning. It’s proved it in the record American TV audience watching the games; in the vast number of U.S. fans crowding stadiums in Brazil; and in the steady, relentless penetration of the sport into the mainstream American conversation, which for so long treated soccer like some sort of distant uncle — foreign, inscrutable and better kept out of sight.

Soccer’s success here is so incredible in part because Americans aren’t even that good at it yet. So far, every World Cup has served as a rebuke to believers in the myth of American exceptionalism: At the planet’s single most important sporting event, the world’s sole superpower is no such thing. The U.S. team is remarkable only in so far as it is totally unremarkable, a squad of journeymen and youthful aspirants who form, at best, what watchers of the game would deem a “decent” side.

You would be hard-pressed to identify a distinct style to the team, a brand of play — like Dutch total football, Spanish tiki-taka, Brazilian jogo bonito — that speaks of a larger identity. Domestic support for the country’s top soccer league, the MLS, lags behind that reserved for the English Premier League, at least judging by TV ratings. Though U.S. fans are growing by the legions, they still seem to most neutrals and non-Americans (including yours truly) to be endearing dilettantes, largely free of the hooliganism, ultra-nationalism and even genuine fascism of some of their counterparts in other corners of the globe. U.S. soccer, for better or worse, has yet to imprint itself on the global imagination.

But its soccer team already stands for something quite potent. The sport has a long, rich history amid immigrant communities in the country’s cities from where it has spread inexorably outward. The U.S. team may not be an elite force, but it has time, resources and demographics on its side. And while it may never be the swaggering American hegemon of the 20th Century, it sure looks like something of an idealized American 21st Century: industrious, cosmopolitan and more aware of its limitations on the global stage.

It’s a team where an injured forward of Haitian descent gets replaced by a kid who grew up in Iceland. It’s a team where many of its players have spent careers far from the limelight (and home soil), putting in a shift in the relative obscurity of lesser leagues in Europe. It’s a team full of hyphenated Americans, some of whose connections to the nation they represent are tenuous. But when assembled on the pitch, the U.S. has a genuine, stirring collective ethic.

Something exceptional is taking shape. It would be nice if the sport’s detractors finally took notice.

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Sian Prior · June 26, 2014

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