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Americans now return to regularly scheduled fandom

u-s-A, u-s … ugh! From left, Lindzy Vowell, Paul DeSario and Maggie Tiongson watch the loss on TV at MacDinton’s in Tampa.

SCOTT MCINTYRE | Times

u-s-A, u-s … ugh! From left, Lindzy Vowell, Paul DeSario and Maggie Tiongson watch the loss on TV at MacDinton’s in Tampa.

ST. PETERSBURG

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Across the street, the national pastime is being played.

Across the street, the game is live, the local team is leading, and seats are available.

For heaven's sake, across the street, the air conditioner is turned on.

Yet on the patio of Ferg's, a hard line drive from Tropicana Field, hundreds of patrons are standing. Sweating. Swearing. And watching the final minutes of the United States' 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana in the World Cup late Saturday afternoon.

Three out of every four televisions in the place are tuned to the soccer game. Meanwhile, the Rays game is in the third inning and scalpers with handfuls of tickets are standing on the sidewalk watching their profits diminish.

That is, until the referee rules an end to the soccer game at 5:01 p.m. and the stampede begins. No tears. No regrets. Just out the door and across First Avenue South to watch a baseball team in desperate need of a victory.

And soccer, once again, is forgotten.

• • •

As a nation of fans, we Americans love our special moments.

So for the better part of a week, we were smitten by a soccer tournament half a world away. It didn't take a deep knowledge of the game or a lifelong love affair with shin guards. All it took was a special moment.

When Landon Donovan knocked in a rebound in the final minutes of a must-win game against Algeria, it did more for soccer in this country than 100 MLS games could have ever accomplished.

Because it was real drama. It was emotion. It was that jump-out-of-your-seat moment that attaches itself to your memory. And for several days in June, we became a land of soccer enthusiasts.

Just as Barbaro once made us care about horse racing. Just as Lance Armstrong made us long for the Pyrenees. Just as Bruce Jenner once made us feel patriotic, and Bobby Fisher made chess seem cool.

For, as a nation of fans, we Americans love a good story.

• • •

For the better part of a month, we were drawn to a soccer team that most of us knew nothing about. Strengths? Weaknesses? Expectations? Nope, nope, nope.

But when a referee's blown call in a tie against Slovenia sabotaged one of the greatest comebacks the World Cup had seen, we were all in. Suddenly, we knew the game's intricacies. We could debate the merits of referees and the wisdom of FIFA. Suddenly we cared about players whose faces we still had trouble recognizing.

Mostly, we cared about the story of an injustice.

For, as a nation of fans, we Americans love to cheer the flag.

Because, let's face it, we don't agree on much else. We have red states and blue states. We have Letterman and Leno. We have oil and drilling.

So we tend to appreciate those rare times when we all have a common cause. And the World Cup does that as well as almost any sporting competition.

It is a different event than the games we are accustomed to. It is not Yankees vs. Phillies or Saints vs. Colts. It is us against them. And there is something special about everyone in your local pub cheering for the same side.

The Olympics are like that. Maybe some boxing or tennis matches. But it is a rare opportunity for a game to feel as if it is a true world championship, and a true test of a country's honor.

Yet, as a nation of fans, we Americans don't much like soccer.

And I suppose that's ultimately the problem.

We may love the moment. We may love the story. We may love the red, white and blue uniforms. But we're just not that crazy about the sport. And a handful of World Cup games is not going to change that.

It doesn't mean soccer is a lesser sport, and it doesn't mean Americans do not understand the game. It's just that most of us have grown up with different sports and are more or less invested in the games of our fathers. That's why soccer is big in England but baseball is bigger here. That's why soccer is huge in Brazil but football matters far more here.

So don't believe it when people talk about the growth of soccer in the coming days. They will mention all the youth leagues and the TV ratings this week. But the youth leagues have been around for decades, and it hasn't made a difference. And the TV ratings will fall off a cliff now that the United States has been eliminated.

Honestly, I'd bet that the small number of diehard soccer fans in this country don't even mind. In a way, it makes them feel special. As if they are in on a secret that the majority of us don't get. Sort of like fans of indie bands or cult TV shows.

So don't feel like you are obligated to follow Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley in the coming months. They had their moment, you have your memory, and the rest of the world has its sport.

In the United States, we return you to our regularly scheduled programming.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Americans now return to regularly scheduled fandom 06/26/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 27, 2010 1:22pm]
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