The United States obviously needed a win. That wasn’t a secret. Moments after the World Cup schedule was released every commentator, writer and prognosticator concluded that for the USA to have any chance at moving beyond group play, it had to beat Ghana.
With Germany among the favorites to win the World Cup and Portugal a candidate to make a deep run, the Americans had to start with three points against their quadrennial nemesis.
But this had intangible value beyond what it meant in the standings.
Every fours year the popular talk-radio discussion is whether or not a deep run by the US would be enough to create a “soccer boom” in this country, a surge in popularity comparable to what the 1980 Olympic gold medal did for ice hockey.
Realistically, soccer is gaining a foothold a little at a time. Few people go from complaining about the game’s quirky rules to Major League Soccer season-ticket holders overnight.
Most Americans couldn’t even name most of the MLS franchises. But the World Cup is different. It’s like the Olympics. Something about nation competing against nation adds a compelling factor that makes casual fans watch. With each World Cup there’s a little more TV coverage and a little more buzz.
The last several World Cups have been held in time zones inconvenient to American television audiences. Games in France, East Asia, Germany and South Africa were in the morning or afternoon, while most people were at work.
But Monday night offered a 6 p.m. start. Not as ideal as 7, 7:30 or 8 p.m. might have been, but late enough for most people, at least on the East Coast, to be home and early enough that casual fans didn’t have to choose between Team USA or The Bachelorette or (most of) the Red Sox game.
To get some of those casual fans to watch again Sunday against Portugal, the Americans needed to ace this audition. They needed to win, preferably in entertaining fashion. For that, Monday’s victory was perfect.
Clint Dempsey scored seconds into the game on a nifty dance through defenders toward the net that finished with a perfect strike out of the reach of the Ghanaian goalie. Dempsey is a good face for US soccer. In a sport mocked for its flopping and injury faking, Dempsey is a tough guy. Not long after scoring, he broke his nose and after a moment off the field, returned to action. It was the type of toughness that is associated with hockey players not their soccer counterparts.
That was appropriate as the rest of the first half and most of the second felt like playoff hockey. Fans across the nation gripped tight hoping desperately that the Americans could hold on.
If Ghana’s tying goal in the 82nd minute had caused the game to end in a draw, two of the things skeptics hate most about soccer would have been on display — the underwhelming results of the Americans and the unsatisfying feeling of ties. People would have second-guessed coach Jurgen Klinsmann and wondered angrily if Landon Donovan could have made a difference.
Instead, the Americans, who’d been outplayed since Dempsey’s goal, showed heart and rallied. Previously unknown sub John Brooks became a hero with a game-winning header in the 86th minute. Now people can root for an underdog team — the U.S. isn’t an underdog very often — that at least has a chance to move on. Beating either Portugal, which seems more realistic after its miserable showing Monday afternoon, or Germany, which is a huge long shot, would boost the bandwagon that much more.