While the din of the vuvuzela might render you deaf this World Cup, there's another noise that, as an American, you should find just as irksome. No, it's not the sound of ESPN's regulars attempting to call a game (JP Dellacamera, anyone?). It's the declaration that comes along every four years by many people in this country, whether they're sports fans or not, that the U.S. will get trounced. Naturally, this refrain makes many Americans jump ship to another, more reputable team. If rooting for the U.S. is not in the cards because you think the team's chances of doing well are slim, as longtime soccer players and fans, let us disabuse you of this notion.
First of all, the Yanks are good. Are we the best in the world? No, but our chances at going far (to the quarterfinals) are not as much of a long shot as many would expect. Our defense rests on the inconsistent Oguchi Onyewu, but fans should have no problem cheering for our relatively strong lineup of strikers, Jose Altidore and the scrappy Clint Demspey. There's also Landon Donovan, our fearless, intense, super-fast captain, who if used correctly is easily the US's most dangerous weapon. He's also seen first-hand the team's potential. He was on the squad in 2002 when we broke through to the quarterfinals. And he captained the Yanks last year at the Confederations Cup, when we beat number one-ranked Spain and went up two goals against soccer powerhouse, Brazil, who later came back to win the final. Perhaps the most telling sign of why we're a team to beat was the frustration in Donovan's voice when he said in a post-game interview, "We are at the point where we don't want respect. We want to win."
Second, this is the World Cup. While professional leagues allow players to drift from one high-paying contract to another, this tournament of tournaments signals a moment in the sporting world when something much more valuable than money is on the table: national pride. Too many Americans have the motivation to cheer for the home teams of the players they follow the rest of the year in European professional leagues like the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga. This can almost be forgiven, considering the growth in soccer's popularity in this country partly coincides with our growing television access to the European leagues over the past ten years. That said, being a Manchester United fan does not necessitate rooting for England on Saturday just because it's enjoyable watching Wayne Rooney score goals.
As an American, cheering for your country has a greater significance than simply loving the game and those who play it well. Showing your pride for America means expressing exactly what makes this country great: opportunity. Sure, we may still be toddlers in the world of soccer, but in the universe of sports, the U.S. is truly a land of opportunity for athletes of all ilk. Whereas most European countries pluck players as young as seven years old to enter only into professional soccer, the U.S. has a strong structure of youth leagues in sports ranging from tennis to swimming to baseball and football. Hence the reason why we dominate in so many sports. Where else but here could one country boast athletes the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Aaron Rodgers and Lebron James? Not to mention the fact that our women's basketball, softball and soccer teams are habitually ranked among the best in the world (thanks, Title IX!). Even Kelly Smith, one of England's (yes, England's) best female soccer players was able to hone her skills at Seton Hall, a Division I school in New Jersey thanks to the fact that U.S. colleges provide the opportunity for women to excel just as much as men.
The national team representing our country in South Africa is good, not only because of their skill and entirely American determination to win, but because they were also given the opportunity to do anything they wanted, and they chose to play soccer for the U.S. As they take the field against England today, remember the gravity of the stage and that the eleven men on our side are playing for more than just the win, they're playing for national pride. Honor them with your support.
And if you must cheer for England, by all means go ahead ... when they play Algeria and Slovenia.
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