With U.S. Out of World Cup, a Team and Its Country ‘Grew Up a Lot’

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USA SOCCER

(CNN, July 1, 2014) — If anything can salve the wound of the U.S. team’s elimination in the World Cup, it’s how a country opened its eyes to soccer, as if for the first time.

The U.S. team lost 2-1 in a do-or-die game Tuesday to Belgium, but something special happened in America when its team played for soccer’s international title in Brazil

The fans back home set records.

The first-round game against Ghana, for example, set a viewership record for ESPN’s coverage of World Cup matches. America won that game.

When the Americans faced Germany last week, they drew the network’s second highest-rated and third most-viewed men’s World Cup match. The U.S. team lost that one.

Viewership for Tuesday’s game wasn’t immediately available.

Whatever the number, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann declared Tuesday’s game something to savor, though he conceded the loss was “a bummer.”

“It’s been a thriller. It was dramatic,” the German-born coach said on ESPN.

But he noted how a team — and its country — seemingly came of age.

“The whole country and the fans that came down to Brazil; they can be proud of their team,” the coach said. “We take a lot, a tremendous amount away from this experience. We grew up a lot.”

The Americans did “tremendously well” against soccer’s powerhouses, he said.

Nonetheless, the loss sent the Americans home, ending their seesaw quest to advance in the World Cup.

The ‘golden generation’ prevails

Unable to fend off Belgium’s relentless offensive attacks, the Americans succumbed to a team so talented it is nicknamed the “golden generation.”

The U.S. defense, however, was stout, largely because of the sensational saves by goalie Tim Howard.

In fact, the game was scoreless until extra time, when the Belgians scored two goals, followed by one for the Americans.

The U.S. team was considered an underdog, but not in the eyes of its fans, who began a new national chant to assert their confidence: “I believe that we will win!”

But the enthusiasm wasn’t enough to propel the Americans over Belgian aggressiveness.

The loss ended a run of rocky achievements for the U.S. team in the World Cup: the Americans beat Ghana, tied Portugal, lost to Germany, but still earned a place in Tuesday’s knock-out game against Belgium.

U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley described the defeat as disappointing. He noted how the team fought to stay in the game after Belgium scored first and then again.

“We kept playing, we kept playing,” Bradley said on ESPN. “You get to this point, everybody is a good team.”

President watches, too

In the United States, thousands of U.S. fans skipped work or left early Tuesday and gathered in sports stadiums across the country — Chicago, Seattle and Arlington, Texas, for example — to view the game

Even President Barack Obama watched the contest on a big-screen TV with a party of White House and other government employees in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Obama even started a cheer of “I believe that we will win!”

“I was worried if I walked in and Belgium scored, I’d be in trouble,” Obama quipped.

At one of the biggest U.S. venues to broadcast the game live from Brazil, Chicago’s Soldier Field, thousands of fans gathered to watch on the stadium’s big screen.

One group was asked who was playing hooky from work.

A dozen of them raised their hands.

“National Watch Soccer Day,” one fan said.

Understandably, he declined to give his name.

The lakefront stadium is better known as home to the other game of football — the NFL and its Chicago Bears — but on Tuesday, its gates were opened to the public. Thousands of fans sat in the stands or stood on the gridiron, which was covered with a protective matting.

The catch to free admission: Fans have to buy their own beer and food.

Hours before game time, however, U.S. soccer spokeswoman Sinhue Mendoza wasn’t sure whether Belgian beer would be served.

Other U.S. establishments weren’t as ambiguous.

Waffle House all but declared war on one Belgian export.

“We don’t believe in Belgium waffles,” the American waffle-making eatery said on Twitter.

On the East Coast, baseball’s minor league team, the Potomac Nationals, was banning Belgian beer at its game Tuesday night.

“As an ardent supporter of our country’s national men’s soccer team, the Potomac Nationals felt it was only right to sideline our Belgian beer taps the evening before Team USA clashes with Team Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup. If we sold Belgium waffles at The Pfitz, they too would be placed on the (concession’s) inactive list,” Potomac Nationals food and beverage director Aaron Johnson said on Facebook.

The whimsical antipathy seemed to be gaining momentum, if social media’s #boycottbelgium is any indication.

Though Belgium is vastly smaller than the United States — a population of 11 million vs. 314 million — the European team owns the Americans: The U.S. all-time record is 1-4 against the so-called “Red Devils.”

The most recent meeting, on May 29, 2013, was a Belgian victory, 4-2, in Cleveland.

But to help the U.S. team in Brazil, one Chicago fan conjured up the indomitable spirit of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who espoused a “speak softly and carry a big stick” attitude.

In fact, Mike D’Amico, a Chicago advertising firm creative director, is such a lookalike of the early 1900s president that he nicknamed himself “Teddy Goalsevelt.”

Jaunty and swashbuckling, D’Amico wore the iconic slouch hat, owlish wire-rim glasses and leather cavalry gloves that were Roosevelt’s trademark. Roosevelt commanded the flamboyant “Rough Riders” volunteer cavalry in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

With such a name and guise, D’Amico believes he can will the U.S. team to win.

After all, he insists his name should be pronounced as “Teddy Goooooooalsevelt.”

“It’s to motivate these people back here to send their energy onto the pitch to help the U.S. soccer team to win the match,” D’Amico said, referring to how he’s leading fans who gathered to watch the game in one Brazilian establishment.

In New York, U.S. fans filled the Nevada Smiths sports bar, which champions the idea that “football is religion” — referring to soccer, that is.

“We believe that we will win,” said Ryan Ochs.

When told the U.S. slogan was starting to become clichéd, Ochs added: “We have Clint Dempsey and he’s going to score.” Dempsey is the U.S. team captain.

“We’re just going to play excellent defense throughout the match,” Ochs said.

Ochs conceded the Belgians are “more talented than us” and described the U.S. team as the underdogs.

“It’s the spirit of our nation, and it’s manifesting itself in our team,” Ochs said. “Top to bottom (the Belgian) team is more talented than us. But we definitely have more heart and can play together. If that holds true I think that’ll be the reason we win this game.”

Another tavern patron, John Paul Ovadia, remarked how soccer was once a marginalized sport in the United States, but not any more.

“I think every four years there’s more and more interest. And the further the U.S. goes, the more people are paying attention,” he said.

Lauren Redding agreed. “I like the very global component,” she said.

When the United States last played Belgium at the World Cup, it beat them 3-0, but that game was in 1930.

This time, 84 years later, Belgium won — and advances to the quarter finals of the World Cup.

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