Tim Howard Just Taught Me to Love Soccer

U.S.A. vs. Belgium at the World Cup: heartbreaking, yes. But for a bandwagon fan like me, it was also a thrilling reminder of why the sport is great.
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For my breed of liberal, the liberal who just doesn't care about sports, it felt strange to read Ann Coulter's viral column about why soccer is un-American. That's not because of the ridiculousness of what she wrote (though a line like "I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer" is trolling elevated to art) but because, uh, I found myself nodding along with Ann Coulter.

Low-scoring, handless, fundamentally silly—the knocks against soccer resurface every four years. Coulter sees these things as symptoms of the game's socialist soul. But I just see them as facets of a larger truth, which is that sports are generally a waste. Any complaints about any popular athletic contest feels compelling to someone like me, because they help explain why I can't connect with the TV screen come gametime in the way so many other people can.

This attitude is, of course, unhelpful. After watching America lose to Belgium in agonizing and thrilling fashion on Tuesday, it's impossible to deny what I (and I suspect even Coulter) realize, deep down: If you have a problem enjoying soccer or any other popular athletic contest, that's on you, not the sport. 

Exhibits a, b, and c to that effect were Tim Howard, who nuked the notion that soccer is boring, random, and devoid of true stars (Coulter: "Do they even have MVPs in soccer?"). On the page, the fact that the U.S. keeper set a World Cup record for saves in a game (16) is just another statistic that just makes my eyes glaze over. But when I watched the process by which that statistic was achieved—really watch, beer in hand, surrounded by fans, aware of what's riding on the outcome—the feeling was entirely different.

Facing a team of—let me Wikipedia this—10 (plus goalie! right?) world-class athletes in possibly the most important game of their lives, he offered up a Sporcle's worth of answers to the question "how many ways are there to block?" Buzzfeed, obviously, already has a gif gallery of the saves, though it doesn't match what's in my mind's eye: ball after ball refracting at weird and shocking angles off of feet and hands and shoulder and head, with teammates and opponents and stadium spectators alike finding new ways to look impressed each time. 

If my reverie at the moment seems a bit basic, or naive, or just inappropriate given that the nation's soccer watchers just had their hopes snuffed by a 2-1 overtime loss—sorry. But considering the wild viewership gains the sport has seen this World Cup, with audience sizes for recent U.S. games exceeding that of the NBA Finals, I'm obviously not the only bandwagon hopper here.

Now that America's out, will I follow MLS or the Premier League or even, necessarily, the rest of the FIFA tournament? No, probably not. I felt similar excitement as an Orange County kid watching the Angels in the 2002 World Series, and as a Northwestern alum watching the Wildcats on New Year's Day 2013. I follow neither MLB nor NCAA football now. So, diehards: Send your condescension this way, it's warranted.

But also recognize that most sports fans are (research says!) bandwagon riders of one sort or another—caught up at some point by neither rational decision nor deep-seated spiritual affinity, but because the people around them were caught up. When friends, neighbors, and family are obsessed, there's a chance that you, too, will tune in. Do so at the right moment, and what had seemed like the futile exertions of famous people becomes a dramatic demonstration to human ability, a test of your tribe's mettle, and a delicious rebuke to everyone who thinks none of this stuff is worth watching at all.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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