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By Jim Coffman
In the middle of my son's baseball game at Welles Park on Sunday, the coaches and spectators' attention was drawn by a burst of noise emanating from a nearby bar. We initially surmised that something big had to be going on at the Cell. But then one of the dads voiced his belief that it was actually a reaction to the U.S. soccer team's Confederations Cup championship game against Brazil. He wondered aloud if "the U.S. scored again?!" A minute later he confirmed that it had. The U.S. led Brazil 2-0 midway through the first half (on its way to a thrilling but ultimately disappointing 3-2 loss).
And don't think this was one of those world sports specialty pubs either. This was a plain, relatively new establishment with lots of big TVs (which is really all it takes to make a sports bar at this point isn't it - as long as they are tuned to the right events?).
Oh, and another thing. Did we mention that this was a live broadcast from Johannesburg, South Africa? Where everyone was dressed in soccer scarves not to profess their love for their favorite team but to simply try to stay warm (it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere)?
Back to that second point: it used to feel like a fan had to introduce his or herself as either a red-blooded American sports follower or as a soccer fan. And oh the fun to be had by the average American sports columnist or sports talker who identified himself (it was always a "he") as the former and therefore felt it was part of his job to take potshots at the sport the rest of the world loves.
A friend of mine (and former high school soccer team teammate) works for USA Soccer and he still finds himself in too many conversations in which he feels the need to defend the beautiful game. We talked about it recently and my feeling was it is time to stop having that conversation. If someone isn't a soccer fan, move on. You'll run into someone who is soon enough.
Because the tide has clearly turned - part of this is the fact that so many young American adults played soccer when they were a kid. But playing soccer doesn't directly translate into being a fan. All you have to do is check the attendance figures. For a while there it looked like the Chicago Fire was ready to overtake the Blackhawks as the fifth team in town but that possibility was pushed way back by this past highly successful local hockey season.
And while it was nice when the Fire opened a stadium of its own a couple years ago (it sucked going to Soldier Field for a game surrounded by acres of empty seats), the location (west-southwest suburban Bridgeview) was unfortunate. In this town if you are a true Major League sport, you play in the city. Period.
So professional soccer clearly isn't overtaking anything around here anytime soon. What I'm saying is that it doesn't have to, especially of course when the national team doesn't suck. There is a great deal of fun to be had being a fan of soccer and baseball (the quintessential American sport along with football of course) . . . especially when the local hardball squads have struggled as much as ours have so far this season.
* * *
I had a chance to watch the re-broadcast of the Confederations Cup final late Sunday on ESPN 2 (they did the same with the U.S.'s tremendous 2-0 victory over Spain a few days prior in the tournament's semifinal round) and while it was too bad the U.S. couldn't hold on, it was an amazing 90-plus minutes of soccer. It was especially so because in two weeks the national team went from embarrassment (on the heels of some shaky World Cup qualifying play, particularly a bad loss at tiny Costa Rica - the U.S. opened the Cup with a tough loss to Italy and an abysmal one to Brazil) to treasure.
At that point, the U.S. needed a double miracle to advance to the semifinals of the tournament held in South Africa as a precursor to next year's World Cup. They needed to defeat a tough Egypt team that had upset Italy by at least three goals and Italy had to lose to Brazil by at least three (due to a goal-differential tiebreaker if Egypt, the U.S. and Italy all finished 1-2 in their pool). The U.S. played brilliantly against the African champs and indeed pulled out a 3-0 win despite a non-call on an obvious handball on the goal line that would have resulted in a penalty shot. Then Italy, which hadn't lost by three goals in a major international competition in just about forever, lost by three goals (3-0). Then the U.S. doubled down on that two-fer by beating the world's No. 1 ranked team, the reigning Euro Cup champs (the second-best soccer tournament in the world) from Spain. Whew. Who do the Cubs play this week?
Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend in this space every Monday. He welcomes your comments.
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