Rea: U.S. soccer team’s success is another step toward a united passion

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- U.S. soccer fans watch the team's match against Belgium at Finn McCool's Irish Pub on Tuesday, July 1, 2014. Show caption
Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- U.S. soccer fans watch the team's match against Belgium at Finn McCool's Irish Pub on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

From the Bywater to Boston, Mid-City to Milwaukee and Uptown to Utica, this World Cup caught the United States’ attention like no other.

Tens of millions of Americans tuned in. They watched at home. They thronged at bars and pubs. They talked and Tweeted and Facebooked about it.

Did the tournament cause a seismic shift in the country’s embrace of soccer so that one day it will dominate the sporting landscape? Or do Americans not really care about the game and are happy to ignore it for the next four years? The truth lies somewhere in between.

Soccer is on an unstoppable upward trajectory in this country. Interest has mushroomed in the 10 years I’ve been here, and on Saturdays thousands of youths play in parks scattered throughout south Louisiana.

As a spectator sport, the difference between this competition and the last in South Africa is staggering. I had elderly ladies in the library ask me about the games. I discussed matches with my daughter’s female teenage babysitter. I heard workers in grocery stores and on cash registers on Magazine Street chat about the World Cup. I saw U.S. soccer scarves on St. Charles Avenue and team jerseys on Frenchmen Street.

At Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in Mid-City — New Orleans soccer central — an estimated 500 fans turned up for the Belgium contest in the round of 16 — on a Tuesday afternoon in July. TV crews from three stations watched the fans watch the game.

This unprecedented interest was replicated around the nation: The U.S. had the third-best TV ratings in the world, behind only Brazil and Germany.

There have always been U.S. soccer hotbeds, but what changed this time was that the game penetrated the heartlands of America and crossed over into the country’s consciousness.

Supporters packed iconic Soldier Field in Chicago for live broadcasts, and it was the same story in places like Kansas City. In Petco Park, they put it on the big screens so the San Diego Padres players could watch during batting practice.

A ground-breaking 16 million viewers saw the U.S. play Ghana in the Americans’ World Cup opener — and that record was smashed again when 25 million tuned in for the Portugal game. To put that in perspective, 18 million watched the final game of the NBA Finals, and 15 million tuned in for the World Series decider. For only the second time in history, soccer searches outstripped the NFL on Google.

But of course the competition is only once every four years, and it is in the 1,400 or so days until the next one that the soccer plant needs to be nurtured if the roots are to take hold. The U.S. team’s success in Brazil, and the high profile it enjoyed for a month, augers well for the long-term future.

In the late 1970s, the ill-fated North American Soccer League blazed brightly and briefly but burned out as organizers imported big stars on huge salaries in the twilight of their careers. The present MLS setup learned from that and is expanding slowly but inexorably, with an ever-increasing number of thriving franchises.

Indeed, their average attendance is now greater than those for both the NBA and NHL, and nearly all the clubs play in custom-built stadia. Soccer is the second-most popular sport with the under-25s, a key demographic for advertisers.

The U.S. already has two of the three requisites to be a global soccer superpower. It has a large population to draw from and, with more than 300 million people, it’s the third-biggest in the world. It’s also rich enough to find the money needed to invest in the coaching infrastructure and player development.

What’s missing is the interest in the game on a consistent national level so that there are kids playing it in the streets and watching it on TV.

But I bet that after watching matches in this World Cup, children all around the country went to bed dreaming that they were going to score with their first touch like Julian Green or single-handedly defend the goal like Tim Howard. And the day may come when that generation leads the country to the soccer promised land.