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What If Landon Donovan’s Shot Sailed Wide?

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There I was, sitting at work (don’t tell), peeking at the United States-Algeria soccer match as the clock teetered toward the 90th minute. The score was 0-0. England was up a goal on Slovenia. Had these scores held, this would’ve meant my American home boys would’ve notched a third tie in the World Cup and would soon be boarding a plane back here. The prevailing sentiment would’ve been: “Ho hum, it was fun to be jazzed about soccer while it lasted.”

But then, in a goal that is being compared to Mike Eruzione’s game-winner in the Miracle on Ice, striker Landon Donovan corralled a loose ball off Jozy Altidore’s crosser via Algerian keeper Rais M’Bolhi’s mitts and plunged it into the net. This was not a goal that would be waved off. The third place team became the group winner in the dozen seconds it took for Tim Howard to begin the attack from the other box.

This is unreal. Just one point was required to finally ratchet up the fervor over this sport in the world’s melting pot. The knockout round begins for them Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET against Ghana, which is a time that people who work traditional banker’s hours can finally catch a glimpse of this spectacle without usurping company bandwidth.

Now for the buzzkill. Sorry, soccer’s still not a dominant sport in the United States.

Last year I wrote about how this game will never be popular (Never! EVER!), especially when compared to its other mainstays (basketball, football, baseball). That declaration looks rather silly now that we’re all fired up by memorizing the Wikipedia entry on Ghana and putting Landon on our shortlist for male baby names.

But look how fragile the phenomenon was. One goal was the difference between indulgence and indifference. If Donovan’s shot whacked the goalpost or missed completely — which was the synopsis of their scoring chances thus far — then we’d have likely reverted to reading NBA mock drafts or filling out MLB All-Star ballots. “We lost in soccer? No big deal. See you in 2014.”

So far I haven’t been convinced that this particular World Cup is changing the way Americans adore soccer. I could be wrong, but that belief will have to be proven over the next three years when the team is traipsing around the Caribbean during qualifiers and friendlies. Or when the MLS starts gathering some serious TV play and attracts world-class athletes.

Because in the time period between this World Cup and last year’s Confederations Cup — when I wrote the aforementioned “soccer won’t be popular” article — soccer was pretty much nonexistent in the sports news cycle. It’s a seasonal, quadrennial sport that we love and live until we’re eliminated. Just like the Olympics.

For the zealous and intelligent soccer fans who valiantly try to convince us (meaning, “yourselves”) of anything otherwise: why bother? We are all infected with rooting for the U.S. Men’s National Team in South Africa. We’re already watching this sport while at work. We finally learned the “offsides” rule. Isn’t that enough?

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  • John Wilson

    I’m starting to really enjoy TV soccer. It’s fun to see the action when I divert attention from more serious matters, and at the same time it doesn’t distract from More Serious Matters.

    But Aussie Rules football is even better! When I can get it, which is occasional on the “MHZNetwork”.

  • I don’t know, Matt. In one way, you Yanks approach football in much the same way as we Brits approach Wimbledon.

    In our case: two weeks’ frantic interest in the sport every June simply because the world’s oldest and most famous tennis tournament is held on our soil.

    In yours: two weeks’ frantic interest every four years because of your national team’s participation in the world’s second biggest sporting event.

    But it doesn’t mean that interest in the sport is going to go away because you lost to Ghana, just as it wasn’t the case that people suddenly didn’t like basketball any more after the 2004 Olympics.