It’s a June Sunday, a catch-your-breath-and-relax time of the year, yet there’s a distinct buzz in the air.
Watch parties are planned. Sports bars prepare like it’s the NFL in October. People from city streets to the office water cooler are talking ... wait for it ... futbol.
Not soccer, that most American of terms. No, they’re talking futbol, the international game, and Team USA’s growing role in that passion play. They fret about Clint Dempsey’s broken nose, Jozy Altidore’s hamstring and Jurgen Klinsmann’s strategy.
One feels the energy heading into the USA’s important World Cup game today against Portugal, from MLS hotbeds across the country to the sidewalks of Modesto. A win pushes the Americans into the knockout round, a noteworthy advance from the so-called Group of Death. Even a tie leaves the red, white and blue in good shape.
Fact is, the USA has enjoyed limited moments of respect in the past. What’s different is the fans’ reaction since the team’s gritty 2-1 win over nemesis Ghana. There’s more of everything – excitement, interest, curiosity, expectation. The sport’s sense of place in this country has expanded. To deny it is to plant your head in the sand.
“A generation gap is being bridged. Kids are being raised in a culture of soccer,” said Modesto’s Heath Pearce, a defender for the MLS’ Montreal Impact. “Families know the game at a high level. The coaches are more know-ledgeable, which is very important. The education of the game is reaching further out.”
Pearce, 29, has witnessed the evolution up close and personal. He’s an MLS veteran who was one of the final cuts from the 2010 national team. Not only has he logged 35 games for the USA, he still hasn’t given up his World Cup dream.
“It helps that the U.S. has done well and MLS is improving,” he said. “It’s all pretty remarkable. I’m very grateful that I’ve been a small part of that.”
World Cup interest comes and goes every four years, granted, and skeptics have dismissed soccer’s numerous false starts here. Recent trends, however, point to a more profound impact.
I think it started in the 1999 Women’s World Cup with Team USA’s spectacular victory at the Rose Bowl. That team, which included Modesto’s Tisha (Venturini) Hoch, inspired huge crossover appeal. It hinted at soccer’s direction.
NBC Sports Network’s current contract with the English Premier League also has hooked the country to the world stage like never before. Everyday fans even received a dose of angst unique to the World Cup when they watched Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, the Liverpool star, KO England from the tournament.
How else to read the numbers? Participation in football, the American bellwether, has dropped as parents worry about concussions and see soccer and other sports as safer options. Soccer has an opportunity right now for a breakthrough.
“In the years to come, the U.S. will have no shortage of world-class players,” Pearce predicted.
Think about it: A LeBron James as a goalkeeper, a striker like Bo Jackson or a midfielder like Peyton Manning. The possibilities are endless if and when athletes of their caliber make soccer their choice. It’s why the world views what’s happening in this country with a mixture of bemusement and wonder. It often scoffs at the Americans’ soccer progress while recognizing its scary potential.
Viewing all the above is Adolfo Gregorio, the owner and manager of Pro Soccer in Modesto. Gregorio, 31, starred at Hilmar High School and UCLA, played alongside DaMarcus Beasley and Kyle Beckerman on the national under-17 team and spent the 2005 season with Real Salt Lake of MLS.
Gregorio likes how Klinsmann, the savvy USA coach and former World Cup star for Germany, has cut through American politics to build his team. Cutting mainstay Landon Donovan required guts and a ramrod spine. Klinsmann has stayed true to his vision as he builds a sturdy age-group program.
Four MLS players started against Ghana. Four others began their careers with MLS. It also must be said that five team members are German-American. Klinsmann is no one’s fool. He seeks difference-makers at the highest level.
“He (Klinsmann) was a very good player who understands the game. He puts a different twist on things,” Gregorio said. “He doesn’t rate the players on popularity. He’s choosing the guys who will be the best fit for his team, the players who will give him 100 percent.”
Which brings us to today’s high-stakes game. Portugal remains a power with Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year. The valley’s many Portuguese residents will enjoy a special rooting interest. The team is weakened by injuries, however, along with the red-card loss of defender Pepe. Portugal’s 4-0 loss to Germany signaled weakness and, without question, a chance for the USA.
“The U.S. has the confidence and the momentum,” Pearce said. “They’re well-prepared ... and will find a way to get a result.”
Can the USA walk through one of those doors that rarely open at the World Cup? Can they defend Ronaldo? Will they wilt in the Brazil heat and humidity? Can they again dig deep like they did against Ghana?
This much we know – the fan base back home is watching.