Soccer in the US is considered more of a children's activity than bonafide sport, the kind of niche programming appropriate for a mid-afternoon spot on ESPN 8 between competitive hackeysack and the World Series of Poker. The world's obsession is all well and good, but for us? Football means first downs and cheerleaders, thankyouverymuch.
Yet the spectacle of a World Cup is enough to compel even stubborn Americans to pay attention. Last time, in 2006, Italy's victory over France drew 16.9 million viewers in the US. Those are American Idol numbers, and this year promises to be even bigger. The US surprisingly leads the world in tickets purchased for this summer's World Cup, and the core group of supporters, dubbed "Sam's Army," is larger than ever.
While the die-hards are as dedicated as anyone in the world, they will be well outnumbered when the US kicks off against England on June 12. The audience for that game will be the largest for any US Men's national team game ever. It will also be the most uninformed viewership of any World Cup nation.
Among them will be a special American brand of modern jackass: World Cup Guy.
You know the type. He fancies himself an expert, or a European, or both. He'll show up in a Beckham jersey with the tags still on it, use the word "footie", and generally act like he knows what he's talking about. He'll pontificate on players and tactics like a cabdriver from Rio. The secret? He has no idea what he's talking about. Get armed with the facts. He'll never see it coming.
The World Cup is contested between 32 teams who mostly earned their spots though regional qualifying tournaments. The teams are drawn into eight groups of four. Each team plays each other team in it's group once, earning three points for a win, one point for a draw, and nothing for a loss. The top two teams move on to the knockout stage, where it's winner-moves-on until there's only one left standing.
This US team is our strongest ever. The team has a core of veteran players in their prime supported by a bevy of young talent getting their first shot at the World Cup.
Included in that veteran group is midfielder Landon Donovan, the only American player World Cup Guy has heard of. He's the lone holdover from the 2002 team that made the quarterfinals. This is not only the last World Cup of his prime but his chance to earn a move to a big European team.
The defense is anchored by the strong trio of Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Their main weakness is speed, and a quick attacker like England's Aaron Lennon could cause them problems.
Of the guys nobody has heard of, the most promising is midfielder Michael Bradley, son of head coach Bob Bradley. He's had a good career in Europe so far and looks like a potential world star. 20-year-old striker Jozy Altidore will lead the attack.
Altidore's close friend and fellow striker Charlie Davies was left nearly paralyzed by a car accident in October. The driver, a friend of Davies, was killed. Davies made a Herculean effort to return in time for the World Cup, but ultimately missed out, leaving Altidore without his preferred strike partner and the US team with no clear second starter up front.
There are plenty of other problems. In preliminary matches the US defense looked shaky and vulnerable against speedy attackers. Onyewu and DeMerit are recovering from injuries, and it's unclear whether they're 100%. Coach Bradley selected only seven defenders, and if Onyewu or DeMerit can't play, they're in trouble.
But the team has an edge: Chemistry. Other countries may have 23 star players, but they're distant stars, never willing or able to build the trust and cohesion that the US team has.
World Cup Guy will probably harp on how awful America is, or how amazing. The truth is somewhere in between. For the first time in recent memory, the US can legitimately expect to get through the group stage. Further progression is unlikely, but with a bit of luck, they can beat anyone.
Brazil, Spain, England, and Argentina lead the pack. Spain is absolutely stacked with talent, but have traditionally underperformed at the World Cup and have never won it. Brazil are often runaway favorites, but their best players at the moment aren't quite as good as usual, and they have had to adapt their approach to stress strong tactics and fundamentals over flashy skill.
England has plenty of talent but tend to collapse when the pressure gets high. Despite inventing the game, they've only won the World Cup once, 44 years ago, generating a culture of losing that could easily derail them.
Argentina are the mystery of the group. They have wonderful talent including the world's best player, Lionel Messi, and are coached by the legendary Diego Maradona. But Maradona's career ended in a coke-induced tailspin, and his managerial decisions have been questionable at best.
Messi scored a phenomenal 47 goals for Barcelona this year (ordinary forwards score 12 goals per year, world-class forwards score 30). World Cup Guy will think that Messi's presence will be enough to lead Argentina to glory. But Messi has never played his best for Argentina, where he is usually asked to occupy an unfamiliar role with less support. Don't be surprised if he stinks.
TRANSITION AND TURMOIL
World Cup Guy will consider Italy, France, and Portugal elite, but this World Cup finds them all in an awkward phase. Each of these teams has a group of once-great players who are past their glory days, and the next generation hasn't matured enough to make up for the loss of the veterans.
The French team in particular is in trouble. They're in midst of a cringe-inducing scandal involving an underaged prostitute, barely qualified for the competition, and have a lame-duck head coach with a 22% approval rating from French fans. They could go out early.
World Cup Guy may wonder why the players are wearing long sleeves: It's winter in the Southern Hemisphere. David Beckham is out with an injury, and isn't worthy of a place in England's team regardless. World Cup Guy's favorites Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are out, but Portuguese forward Christiano Ronaldo is in. South Africa is terrible, but no host nation has ever failed to qualify for the group stage, and with the nation behind them, they may do well. As for the other African teams, all have underperformed in past World Cups. This tournament, the first to be hosted on African soil, represents their best chance yet to fulfill their potential and make a mark on the world game.
Unlike professional sports, where the fans care more than the players, and Olympic sports, where the players care more than the fans, the World Cup earns 100% passion from both sides.
The World Cup is the globe's biggest sporting event because this elusive, unique harmony. It's a stubborn oasis from our dominant cynical sports culture, a refuge for sportsmanship and pride. America pays attention simply because there's nothing else like it. Shut World Cup Guy up, sit back, and enjoy.