Tuesday, June 17, 2014

U.S. v. Ghana, Or The Levee Breaks, And Then Reappears

Dempsey, Early, With A Good Nose
Every four years, the World Cup comes around to remind casual U.S. sports fans how much fun it is to watch an ad-free, continuous action game of unrelenting tension. It's especially good when it distracts us from the game we don't watch anymore (baseball) as we wait for the game that we watch too much (American football).

And so it has been this year, and the magical thing has been that just about every game has been fun to watch. Well, OK, not Iran-Nigeria; that was everything that's wrong with this game in spades. But you get the gist, and so far, that's the only tie of the tournament. There's been a lot of scoring, not so much awful officiating outside of the Brazil game, comebacks and no riots or stadium failures. As good as you can hope for, really.

Today's US 2-1 win over Ghana was, well, a game script you've never seen before. Clint Dempsey scored one of the fastest goals in World Cup history, a nifty little bit of sleight of foot and post banging that was flat out gorgeous. Gradually over the rest of the first half, Ghana got the better of play, especially once strike Jozy Altidore went down with a horrible looking hamstring pull, then Dempsey damn near got his nose broken on a kick to the fact that somehow didn't draw a serious penalty to the Ghana side. Defender Matt Besler was next to go with another hamstring problem, and the game was looking increasingly more essential, as the squad was melting in the Brazilian heat and humidity. New coach Jurgen Klinsmanm subbed in people no one has ever heard of (Stupid German! Where's our Landon Donovan security blanket!), and the Black Stars (their name, not mine) seemed to control every ball, with only goaltender Tim Howard standing between them and a tie or worse.

Now, regardless of your familiarity with the sport at hand, you've seen this game. Underdog team takes a lucky early lead, players get hurt, they turtle up and cling to a lead for all they are worth. Either they escape or lose that lead, and if they lose it, that's it. The air is out of the balloon, the jig is up, and their fans try to talk themselves into moral victory noise or call for some goat's head. (Klinsman for leaving Donovan behind! Howard, for tragically leaving the short post open...)

What doesn't happen is a stunning and damned near immediate response goal. What doesn't happen is getting that stunning and damned near immediate response goal from one of those anonymous rookie subs, in this case 20-year-old John Brooks, converting a corner kick opportunity with a picture-perfect spiking header. Oh, and it's Brooks' first goal, and he was set up by some guy named Graham Zusi, another sub who came in due to injury and infirmity.

And just like that, the U.S. flipped the deck and has a 2 to 1 chance of escaping the so-called Group of Death, especially now that Portugal is a smoking ruin after a 4-0 flattening by the Germans, accented by a red card suspension for a starting fullback. 85% of the teams that win their opener advance in the current format, and while it's not out of the realm of possibility that the US could be in that sad 15%, the chance would have been much worse without Brooks' miracle.

And, well, the natural tendency of fans, especially of niche sports like futbol in America, is to look to moments like this as the spark that starts a new era. But that's not how it works, really. The U.S. did not become dominant in ice hockey after the Winter Olympics in 1960, or 1980. Women's soccer did not become a big deal after Brandy Chastain scored and disrobed. The WNBA didn't explode after women started dunking. Any number of niche Olympic moments were nice and then passed under the waves, without us starting to give big media numbers to weight lifting or Greco-Roman wrestling or volleyball or whatever.

No, what matters is when you have that moment, and then another, and then another. Or when those moments turn into people going to games at the lower level. The U.S. has had pro soccer for decades now, intermittently but with an increasing amount of frequency. That's where Zusi plies his trade, rather than for some Euro team; roughly half of the team work there. If the US makes a run that translates into more ratings for Kansas City, Seattle, San Jose and Salt Lake in MLS, and more plus athletes staying with the game into their teen years, that's when the spark is more than a treasured memory. For now, it's just fun to see a game end in a way you've never really seen, and a team that that does the incredibly rare and wonderful thing of making damn near everyone mark out for the flag.

The next game is Sunday against the wounded animal of Portugal, and that's going to be difficult even if Altidore and Beasley are healthy. But that's for another day, and another chance at a spark... with more people watching, on the weekend.

No comments:

Ads In This Size Rule