By Kristian Dyer
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There is more on the line for the U.S. Men’s National Team and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Thursday than just another soccer match. It’s more than just the chance to get a result against a world power. It’s more than a chance to advance to the second round of the World Cup.
The birth of a soccer nation — a true soccer nation — is on the line.
Opportunities like this come once every four years and for a nation whose identity as a soccer-playing country is still evolving, a result against Germany would be monumental. This nation has had big matches in the past, with big wins dotting its history. But a result against Germany would be set apart, and the opportunity is there for the sport to grab the United States firmly and never let go.
Last week, the match against Ghana was a ratings bonanza, with 11 million viewers tuning in for the 2-1 win. Then on Sunday, the 6 p.m. broadcast drew north of 18 million viewers with an 11.9 rating, the kind of numbers that are turning heads among television executives. If Univision’s numbers are included, the game’s reach was closer to 25 million.
Those are ratings that show the sport is more than a niche. Those numbers register among the common fan and trickle down to mainstream America. This isn’t an Olympic phenomenon; these are hundreds and thousands of people falling in love with the sport, becoming one with the global obsession.
But a result against Germany would do more than advance the United States to the knockout rounds in consecutive World Cups for the first time history, it would make the sport legitimate in this country.
Since the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, soccer has been on the periphery of the headlines. It is now respected as a sport, no longer something for foreigners in short shorts to play. But despite the gains made over the past 20 years it isn’t “there” yet.
But a result Thursday will make it an American sport.
Soccer is gripping this nation in a way that it never has before. Not in 1994 when the United States beat World Cup favorites Colombia and advanced to the second round for the first time in modern history. Not in 2002 when it went to the quarterfinals in a tournament that aired in the early morning hours and was largely ignored by the mainstream media. And in 2010, the pragmatic style of the U.S. didn’t enthrall fans or the media, even as our team tied England and won the group for the first time ever.
This team, with a charismatic head coach in Klinsmann and buoyed by several stars in or produced by MLS, seems to be in the midst of something special. There’s mainstream acceptance of this national team that extends beyond the usual patriotic fervor. The national team is ironically more respected outside of the country than within the United States.
It was those efforts in 1994 and then eight years later and again in 2010 that provided the momentum to get to this point. But if those teams had failed, there would have been a collective shrug from Joe Six-Pack and the media. Soccer wasn’t widely accepted, at least not as much as it is now. But more is riding on this World Cup and this game. National television is abuzz, the Internet is going crazy and other media outlets that might not have talked up the sports before are doing so now. Something has changed in this country yet it still has to take the next step.
The idea for Thursday is to get a result and advance and see the sport gain national acceptance. Get a result and it is no longer like the Olympics and a fun thing to get behind every four years. Get that result, and the trickle-down effect would be similar to the 1980 U.S. hockey team in Lake Placid, which catapulted the sport mainstream in this country. No other nation in the World Cup has soccer on the outside of its sports landscape like the United States. This result is how the sport will be viewed for the next four years.
Win Thursday and advance. Then, suddenly, this is a soccer nation.
Lose, perhaps fail to go through, and soccer remains on the outside, without respect and without hope — at least for another four years.
It’s more than just a game.
Kristian R. Dyer is the Jets beat reporter for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo! Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed at @KristianRDyer
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