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When it comes to the World Cup, aim higher, America

BILL PLASCHKE

We diminish the game of soccer, and inhibit its growth here, by setting expectations so low. We've been here before and must go deeper in the tournament to push the sport forward in our nation.

June 24, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The United States is giddy, grateful, gushing over soccer.

The president of the U.S. Soccer Federation says, "I think this has got to be the greatest win in U.S. soccer history."

The goalkeeper pitches a shutout and says, "This is big, big news…. People in America have to understand this is huge."

Landon Donovan scores a goal and says, "It's like a dream."

All of this after Wednesday's World Cup victory against Algeria?

No, all of this eight years ago after a second-round World Cup victory against Mexico.

You see, we've been here before. But, this being soccer, we just don't act like it.

I am as thrilled as anyone about Donovan's extra-time goal to beat Algeria and give the U.S. its first group victory in World Cup history. I screamed. I jumped. It was cool.

But I just can't understand why everyone is tearfully acting as if it were another Miracle on Ice. I can't understand why we continually diminish soccer — and thus inhibit its growth — by continually setting its expectations so low in the face of opposing evidence so thick.

The miracle is that, after six consecutive World Cup appearances including that final-eight showing in 2002, we still go crazy over early World Cup success.

The miracle is that, in a country where you can't leave your home on a Saturday morning without encountering at least one child wearing a baggy soccer uniform and clutching a juice box, we're still acting as if soccer is some newfangled cult activity.

This miracle is that, even against a team that did not score a goal in three World Cup games and has never advanced past the group stage, we insist on celebrating like the underdog.

I loved the video that showed different parts of America cheering Donovan's goal, but shouldn't that rejoicing have been filled with more relief? We should have won that game because we were clearly the better team. We should advance to the round of 16 because, well, we're the 14th-ranked team in the world.

I suspect that one reason U.S. soccer does not become a superpower is because, as fans, we don't demand it. We don't pressure a losing coach like a Southeastern Conference football crowd. We don't push a struggling player like a New York baseball crowd. We blister an NBA coach for ripping a referee, yet we allow soccer players to fire away.

We give soccer excuses it doesn't need, then shower it with praise for a job it hasn't finished. We treat American soccer like a precocious prodigy instead of a burgeoning powerhouse. The youth soccer movement in this country is at least 30 years old, Major League Soccer is 15 years old — isn't it time for everyone to grow up?

Landon Donovan has been this team's leader for, like, forever, so he should be expected to be in the middle of the winning goal. Tim Howard is one of the best goalkeepers in the world; he should be expected to stop shots. More than 3 million kids playsoccer in this country, we should be able to find a dozen or so to beat a nation that can't match our soccer program in funding or accomplishment.

This is not an anti-soccer column. On the contrary, it may be the most pro-soccer column you will read this week.

I respect the sport. My children played it. My university won a national championship in it. I respect soccer too much to compromise its potential by accepting the old stereotypes that drag it down.

Our best athletes play other sports? Somehow the U.S ski team can figure out a way to beat the Austrians, and the U.S. swim team can beat the Australians, and there aren't any tight ends in either sport. Our children don't grow up with the sport as in other countries? Um, who do you think coined the phrase "soccer mom"?

I know, I know, I'm an uneducated hack, I don't understand the evolution of the world's most beautiful game, soccer is different, soccer needs time, blah, blah, blah. I do know this. In any other national team sport, if one of our teams is good enough to reach the world's final eight in 2002, we would expect nothing less eight years later.

Which brings me to Saturday's second-round game against Ghana. Despite what you may read, the only Cinderella here is the other team.

The U.S. is ranked 18 places higher in the world than Ghana. The U.S. has six consecutive World Cup appearances; this is only Ghana's second. Despite a loss to the Black Stars four years ago, the U.S. is light-years ahead of Ghana in age, experience and funding. This is not a gift game. This is a must-win game.

Now, if the U.S. team can win two more times and make the Final Four for the first time? Well, that's something. That's progress. That's an awakening. That's big-boy soccer.

Until then, don't just cheer for their success, but demand that success, and stop treating them like children.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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