The World Cup, the Sounders and us

A Sounders game. Credit: Art Bromage/Flickr

Contributing to the many fascinating feats at the World Cup in Brazil, the United States national team Thursday managed to fall up. In a monsoon, no less.

The contravention of the laws of physics came at the expense of Portugal and Ghana, the members of the so-called "Group of Death" who fell down. How unoriginal.

The U.S. lost to Germany 1-0, but both teams elevated to the knock-out round next week by virtue of better records in the three games of group play. For those Americans who see advancement via defeat as a peculiar way to find a champion, please consider the method by which the U.S. for decades has decided its national college football champion — the voted opinions of sportswriters who probably are better qualified to judge a swimsuit pageant. And would prefer to do so.

Because the U.S. and Germany knew before the match that a mere draw — as well as a close U.S. loss — would advance both, the teams played with an industrial-strength pucker that sapped the game of any passion and daring. The only real theater was was whether the rain would wash the teams, players and stadium into the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite acute caution from by the U.S., Germany's 24-year-old star, Thomas Muller, in the 55th minute punched in from 18 yards a rebound score off the hands of American goalie Tim Howard. The shot was authoritative, as was the Germans' control of the ball for 64 percent of the game. Had the stakes been higher, so would have been the margin of victory.

Nevertheless, the Americans, second in Group G, have defied the skeptics and moved on to the round of 16, where the Yanks meet Belgium, winners of Group H, at 1 p.m. Tuesday. For the first time, the U.S. has advanced to the knockout round in consecutive Cups, another sign that Yank progress in the world's game is moving ahead.

Speaking of progress, judging by the Cup's TV ratings, soccer has more than a beachhead in the battle for hearts and minds in the sporting amusements.

The U.S.-Portugal game Sunday, viewed on cable nets ESPN and Univision, was seen by 24.7 million, close to the BCS college football "championship" audience of 26.4 million, and well outpacing the NCAA men's basketball Final Four, Masters golf and either NHL or NBA championships. Only the NFL and the Olympics were bigger TV draws this year.

Owing to a 9 a.m. start on a workday, Thursday's rating won't do nearly as well. And the big Portugal number is a bit deceiving, since it benefits by two factors that are candy to American viewers — national participation, and spectacle, neither of which addresses the embrace of the sport for itself.

Still, the show has been compelling. Soccer-mad Brazil, despite its dreadful over-spend on the tourney and its roaring economic problems, is providing a pulsing backdrop, and ESPN's coverage, anchored by the knowledge and smoothness of anchor Bob Ley, is doing a splendid job of showcasing and explaining.

Beyond spectacle and U.S. participation, as well as the Cup tradition of controversial, jaw-dropping goofiness — the bite by Uruguay's Luis Suarez will keep late-night comedians dealing for months — several factors are bumping up the attractiveness of this event for casual U.S. fans.

For a nation that abhors nil-nil, the 32 World Cup teams averaged almost three goals a game in the now-concluded group play. With 16 games left, the 136 scores were just one short of all games in the 2010 Cup.

Underdogs abound: The presence of little guys Switzerland, Greece, Chile and Costa Rica in the round of 16 evokes the charm of the NCAA hoops tourney and its various Butlers, Gonzagas and Florida Gulf Coasts, while defending champion Spain, along with traditional powers Italy, England and Portugal are headed home to Europe today. 

The level of play by individuals and teams has to delight any newbie, none more dramatic than the local-angle play by Sounders' Clint Dempsey, the U.S. captain who has gone household with his name, thanks to two vital goals. His Seattle teammate, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, whose surprise inclusion on the 23-man roster was thought to be mere training wheels for 2018, has delighted by getting in as a reserve the past two games and drawing praise for his rookie coolness.

And for those who judge their sports by variety of hairstyles, this World Cup shows what happens when John Deere mowers are granted access to salons.

As for the Americans, having lived through the Group of Death, they can rightly conclude they must be invincible. And for their fans, all that remains is to figure out a way to work up a mad-on for Belgium.

Brussels sprouts? Maybe. But Seattleites should know that Belgium averages 200 rainy days a year and makes great beer, so any hate on Tuesday will constitute a form of self-loathing.

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