A New Day Dawns

The crowd didn't riot. No one set himself on fire in the parking lot. There wasn't a speck of angry talk about hiring a hit man to whack out Claudio Reyna or Clint Mathis. In fact, as the biggest game in the history of U.S. men's soccer came to its unhappy conclusion early Friday morning, only quiet pride prevailed -- at least among the 1,000 or so bleary-eyed, Stars-and-Stripes-wrapped fans who had arrived at 5 a.m. to watch the match on TV in a lounge at Invesco Field at Mile High.

"A great effort," Denver accountant Mike Hammond said with a philosophical sigh. "Our guys took it to 'em but didn't quite get the job done. Don't worry. We'll be back."

Germany -- the winner of three World Cups and loser of two World Wars in the century just concluded -- had knocked the Yanks out of the Cup quarterfinals on the strength of stiff defense and the game's only goal, Michael Ballack's sharp header off a high cross in the 39th minute of the first half. The Germans would go on to defeat co-host South Korea in the semifinals, 1-0; the Americans would fly home. But the Invesco diehards understood perfectly the phenomenon they had witnessed in the past two weeks: the elevation of the U.S. men's team from also-ran and global joke to legitimate contender. The brash young upstarts who had beaten heavily favored Portugal, tied South Korea, lost to Poland, taken out Mexico and refused to be intimidated by bigger, more experienced Germany had done themselves proud. Watch out in 2006, earthlings: After winning only two World Cup games in the previous seventy years, the beast has broken out of its cage.

But what in the name of Mia Hamm will that come to mean in a nation that remains noticeably cool to the world's most popular sport? "It depends who jumps on the bandwagon," speculated Isaac Warren, a 24-year-old lawyer and sometimes club soccer player. "There has to be a bandwagon to start, and there's probably not enough of one to support soccer as a fifth [major] sport here. How do you market soccer on TV? How do you get advertisers to really spend money? There are analytical and logistical problems other than just fan support."

For now, the U.S. version of World Cup craziness certainly lacks the high drama and low comedy it produces elsewhere. While most of America slept Friday morning, the Invesco crowd that had gathered at the invitation of Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids sipped coffee, ate doughnuts covered with red, white and blue sprinkles, and urged on coach Bruce Arena's team with almost studious restraint. Oh, there were some momentary chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A.!" In the first half, someone started batting a big soccer-style beach ball around the room. And a couple of Broncos Sunday-style scaries materialized from the whiskey vapors: Bobby Merson, flag-draped and terminally hoarse, allowed as how he'd been up all night drinking vodka and watching Brazil beat England 2-1 in the earlier quarterfinal telecast live from Japan. He had almost no intention of punching the clock today. At least not before smoothing out with a couple of bloody Marys.

"Heeeeeey!" he crooned in the pre-game darkness of the parking lot. "The Germans are goin' doooowwwwwn. Now, who the hell has a beer?" Somebody did.

The remainder of the well-behaved fans within might as well have been at church. Without much to cheer for, they analyzed the game with knowing precision and accepted as fate the one measly goal that kept the U.S. from another amazing advance. Even the shirtless boys with players' names painted on their backs remained subdued, as if trapped in algebra class instead of standing on the doorstep of history.

Cup Crazy? Consider the pain in Spain this spring when, in mid-shower, goalie Santiago CaNizares tried to catch a falling cologne bottle with (what else?) his foot, sliced a couple of tendons in his big toe and provoked a national crisis. Think of the poor Colombian player who, after inadvertently banking in the winning goal for an opposing team in the 1998 World Cup, flew home with the team and for his efforts was promptly murdered -- supposedly by a cocaine lord who'd lost a bundle on the game. How about the Italian soccer club Perugia, which cut its ties with South Korean star Ahn Jung Hwan after he scored the goal that eliminated Italy from this year's Cup?

And contemplate the South Korean fan who set himself on fire three weeks ago in the name of national honor. Said the poor devil's suicide note: "I'm choosing death because South Korea has to go far to compete with the Latin American and European teams. I will be a ghost and the twelfth player on the pitch."

Hmmmm. While South Korea unexpectedly reached the Cup's elite eight, tournament favorites Argentina, Portugal, France and Italy were all sent packing in the second round. This probably doesn't mean that soccer moms in Keokuk will take to self-immolation anytime soon, but the astonishing performance of America's team has given new hope to homegrown soccer fans who cringed when the U.S. finished dead last in the 1998 World Cup in France behind a humiliating 0-3 record. Ryan Lungerhausen, one of three seventeen-year-old Wheat Ridge High School soccer players decked out, face and body, in Old Glory hues Friday morning, probably spoke for many: "This means a lot to me. It shows what we've accomplished, how the team's hard work is finally paying off." His friend Sean Thornton, who led all Colorado high school goalies last season with more than 200 saves in twelve games, saw the American advance as a matter of moral and political pride: "This is a huge emotional lift after September 11," he said. "We have showed we are not just a world-dominant power, but that we play up to world standards, too."

That, of course, is exactly what worries some other World Cup nations. The U.S. team was roundly and regularly booed in South Korea, where 37,000 American troops are stationed and where sports fans are still rankled by a 2002 Winter Olympics medal flap involving a U.S. and a Korean speed skater. Many Europeans and Latin Americans, who have for decades been the lords of the game, are no happier than the Koreans about the prospect of beefed-up American soccer power. All of Mexico was clearly irked when the U.S. knocked its team out of the tournament last week, 2-nil, and protectors of local culture in nations like France and Germany are complaining loudly that, along with such unwelcome imports as Britney Spears, Star Wars and the ubiquitous Big Mac, they may soon have to endure the sting of American soccer dominance as well.

Who knows? Before Claudio Reyna, Clint Mathis and DaMarcus Beasley become household names right here in their own country, many Americans will have to get over their long-held dislike of a game in which the scores are generally low and the strategies are sometimes elusive -- at least to sports fans accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of American football and the high-flying dazzle of hoops. "I think this is an important game for U.S. soccer," lawyer Isaac Warren said Friday, but there was caution in his voice. "It gives the whole sport a momentary lift. But that can wane. If we lose here, people may go back to work thinking it was a fun ride, but now it's all over."

As it happens, young Ryan Lungerhausen was headed off to his summer lifeguard job at the YMCA after the U.S. loss. Sean Thornton had to play not one, but two soccer games, at 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. that day, for the Colorado Edge, a "premiere"-level team for seventeen-year-olds. Lurching through the parking lot toward a friend's car, the vodka-fueled Bobby Merson said he was definitely not going to face his boss under any circumstances. But he managed the last word, happily garbled though it was: "Yeah, yeah," he said. "Germany won the game. But you can take this one to the bank: The sleeping giant has awakened."


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