Team USA is Playing to Win Fans and Influence People

The upside of the tragic tie? The Yanks have their country’s undivided attention.

For fans of America and freedom and superiority complexes, Portugal’s miraculous last second goal against the US on Sunday felt like a devastating blow. A win would have been an accomplishment for the 23 men wearing stars and stripes in Brazil, but it also would have given bandwagon fans – the dominant American species – an excuse to wander away. Instead, the heartbreaking draw did precisely the opposite, forcing a newly minted “Outlaws” to study up on FIFA bylaws and revisit sixth grade math. What makes Thursday’s game exciting is that the Yanks will be playing in front of invested fans, people who took the time to Google relevant scenarios – if only so they could correct their friends.

Tomorrow’s match is much more complicated than the “win or go home” scenario American sports fans are used to. If we win, we will in fact advance. But we’ll also advance if we draw. And we could advance if we lose. Here’s a chart explaining all that the very existence of which proves how far American soccer fans have come. The past few days have seen exhilarating hype videos and new reasons to hate Germany cleverly disguised as news articles. The rivalry has even made its way to space. For those of us stuck on Earth, The Wall Street Journal published tips on how to skip work to watch the match while The Today Show is helping people figure out how to watch at work. Ratings records will almost certainly be broken.

American fans want this so much that the stakes for the USMNT might be higher at home – not to win games, but to win fans. Soccer looks to be finally making good on its promise as “Sport of the Future” (trademark 1974) and another match that captivates the country will only help it along. The opponent is important too. Many casual American soccer fans got to see Ronaldo play for the first time Sunday. He wasn’t at his best, but even a limping Ronaldo can do things with a soccer ball that few Americans have seen. Thursday we’ll get to see Americans clash with Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm, and Mario Gotze. These guys are very good and, if we win, we’ll all be totally justified in dressing up like FDR and getting drunk. If we lose, we’ll plant a seed of resentment in our hearts and watch it grow. Either way, we’ll care.

And what better way to convince a nation that a sport has merit than by giving it games to care about and world-class players to watch? Ultimately, the true test of the United States’ success at the 2014 World Cup will be measured in how far it advances in the tournament and how much it advances the game at home. Both of those goals are furthered by playing meaningful games like tomorrow’s. So as much as Sunday’s draw hurt, we can’t help but be glad it happened.

Photos by Mario Tama/Getty Images