If the United States beats Belgium and advances to the World Cup quarterfinals for the fourth time ever, Saturday afternoon's game, likely against World Cup favorite Argentina, will be one of the biggest sporting events of the calendar year. (I'm shivering just thinking about it.) Every bar in the country will be packed to the gills, a rare collective American experience that we'll go nuts for. It would be the biggest moment in American soccer history, and, I suspect, shift the trajectory of soccer's ascendance in this country into hyperdrive. People will lose their minds.
But what if we lose? For all the optimism, Belgium is, in fact, favored, and coming into Tuesday, in the Round of 16, the teams that won their group have gone 6-0. (Argentina should make it 7-0, leaving the U.S. as the lone second-place hope.) For all the fun the underdogs have had this World Cup -- and for all the "no one believes in us!" self-motivation the U.S. team clearly is feeding off -- most of the upstart surprise teams are now gone. The only one left is Costa Rica, arguably only here because they drew Greece, another upstart team, in the Round of 16. As with the NCAA tournament, the mid-majors provide all the early drama, but in the end, the teams with the pedigrees and the history are the ones who survive.
The United States may win. Like you, I'll be screaming for them. If they don't, what then?
Here are things to remember about the future of soccer in this country if the United States loses and ends this country's summer party.
Interest in soccer will abate slightly in the short-term, but continue to rise in the aggregate.
The last time the United States had this sort of explosion of interest in the World Cup -- and only this sort of interest; it has been far bigger this time -- was 1994, when the United States hosted the tournament and stunned observers by reaching the Round of 16. Soccer was a curiosity then, but out of that curiosity sprung the MLS, which was actually part of the national bid to host the Cup.
Major League Soccer had its early struggles -- it almost went under a few times, and the players actually sued the league in the third year of existence -- but it has always risen a little bit more after each successful U.S. World Cup appearance. It is primed to do so again this year. Even so, soccer's growing popularity in the United States isn't reliant on the MLS. NBC's devotion to the Premier League paid off huge for it this year, and its blanket coverage revealed just how many American fans there are. (Talk to your friends in England; they're envious of how much of the EPL we can see here.)
Soccer doesn't need to get bigger than the NFL, or even the NHL, the NBA or MLB, to be a success here. It just needs to own its niche. (America is a big country; even our niches are huge.) The world of soccer has long awaited (and feared) America's embrace of the sport. The World Cup has moved that along. Sure, fewer Americans will be talking about soccer a month from now are right now, but there will be a helluva lot more than there were five years ago.
The MLS is skyrocketing, and was even before this World Cup fervor.
As has become increasingly clear in recent years, sports rules the world of cable television; it's a main reason it exists entirely. (In short: Most people don't DVR sporting events and watch them later, which means you watch them live, which means you watch the ads rather than fast-forwarding through them, which means sports TV is far more valuable than most TV, which means even your friends who don't ever watch sports are giving ESPN five bucks, no matter what.) Live sports are the lifeblood of television now.
This has trickled down to MLS. In May, MLS signed an eight-year, $720 million deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision, an unprecedented amount of money for American soccer. It's a landscape-shifting amount of money; suddenly, MLS will become a legitimate destination for top-tier international players, not just those at the end of their careers. (David Villa is on his way here, surely others are, too.) The MLS is also expanding, with teams in New York City, Orlando, Atlanta and Miami on their way. There's a ton of money in the MLS right now, and it's about to become a much bigger part of your sports-viewing life, whether you like it or not.
The boost of this World Cup will help MLS, like it always does. But this league is getting stronger, and may eventually hit the point that an early U.S. exit won't cause it much pain at all. The MLS is about to become a major American sports league. The networks have paid enough money to make sure it is so.
Jurgen Klinsmann is going to be a part of your life for a long time.
The U.S. coach, who had just about every single one of his "controversial" decisions vindicated in the last fortnight (funny how Michael Wilbon has been real quiet lately about Klinsmann "getting out of America"), isn't just the head of the U.S. National Team: He's also the technical director for U.S. Soccer. This means he's in charge of both the national team and the whole organizing structure for American soccer.
He's reworking it from the bottom up, attempting to change our whole attitude toward the game, from the youth leagues to how we develop talent to how we coach. If the U.S. had gone winless or failed to escape the Group of Death, all those voices carping at Klinsmann (Wilbon, Landon Donovan, Bruce Arena) would have grown louder and given more credence. Now Klinsmann has everyone's absolute faith.
He also has a four-year contract and total freedom. Whatever his plan is, thanks to the World Cup, he'll get to see it through.
This will be the last time you get to do much day drinking for U.S. World Cup games.
We've been spoiled by having this World Cup in our hemisphere; Brazil is only an hour ahead of the Eastern time zone, so the games have been perfect summertime diversions. Go to lunch, go to happy hour, there has been a world-class soccer game on. You couldn't miss it.
It won't be so perfect next time. The games are in Russia -- one of the venues is Sochi, in case you missed that place -- which means rather than the games starting at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET, they'll begin at 5 a.m., 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. It is difficult to imagine bars being packed with U.S. fans, with all the ensuing celebration videos, at 5 in the morning.
This won't slow the progress of soccer in the country, but it will lead to the 2018 World Cup being less of a phenomenon than this one, no matter how the U.S does. (And if 2022 stays in Qatar, the time change will be roughly similar to Russia.) The crazy, glorious event that is the World Cup has happened at ideal times for Americans this year. Unless the U.S. takes the 2022 Cup from Qatar, it'll be more than a decade, at least, until that happens again. This has been something special. Comets come around more often.
Which means that if the U.S. loses Tuesday, it's not the end of soccer in this country. Far, far from it. But it does mean the end of something. This summer has been a revelation for soccer in the United States. Even if the game is going to be fine either way, I, for one, am still not quite ready for this celebration to end.