The USMNT wasn't meant to get that far. The Group of Death, they called it when the groups were drawn back in December. Hardcore fans of soccer who watched the drawing live groaned when they saw the US was in the same group as Ghana (knocked the US out of the last two World Cups), Portugal (ranked 4th in FIFA World Ranking), and Germany (ranked 2nd). "Well, at least we'll be able to get to see some great players like Ronaldo," we thought. It's not that the USMNT wasn't talented enough to have a chance (they proved that they were). Most casual soccer fans just weren't invested in the USMNT yet. Boy, did that change.
Clint Dempsey scored one of the quickest goals in World Cup history against Ghana. Fans of the USMNT were out of their seats and cheering in the first minute of watching their team. That set the tone for the rest of the World Cup. When John Brooks scored what ended up being the winning goal in the 86th minute against Ghana, USA soccer fans went nuts. A quote began circulating after the win. "It's called the Group of Death because we're in it too." We started to feel entitled, but in a good way. We deserved to make it out of this group. When we tied against Portugal, we felt like we lost. The USMNT outplayed one of the best teams in the world, and as fans, we felt we deserved that win. Just the fact that we felt we deserved that win shows how far US soccer has come. There are few comparisons we can make to how the ending of that Portugal game played out. It was much worse than a typical buzzer beater. Many fans watching the game experienced something they hadn't in any other sport before. The thrill of the win against Ghana and the crushing agony of the tie against Portugal were new feelings to casual soccer fans.
We held our own against Germany, and sure there were World Cup detractors who complained about the USMNT advancing after a loss, but that's just because they didn't understand the concept of the group stage. Had the win against Ghana been the final game the US played, those watching would have thought it incredible. As it is, the USMNT made it out of the Group of Death, defying expectations and creating a new legion of potential soccer fans.
After taking a look at the numbers, it's impossible not to see how far soccer has come as a spectator sport in the United States. The USMNT's final game against Belgium had a 9.8 rating on ESPN. That's over 16 million viewers. It fell behind only one other soccer match in US history: the game between USA and Portugal the Sunday before which garnered over 18 million viewers. Both games had a higher rating than the 9.3 rating average of the recent 5-game NBA Finals. Soccer's increasing popularity is apparent online as well with social media exploding with memes of Tim Howard saving things after the US goalkeeper's spectacular game against Belgium.
At this point, the question is if soccer can compete with the top US sports year round rather than just every four years. Fans are attracted to stars. Most of those soccer stars play overseas in the English Premier League though. While viewership of the Premier League is up in the US, the MLS still has some ground to cover. The incredible ratings for the World Cup can only be good for Major League Soccer though. Many of the players playing in this World Cup play in the MLS. These include USMNT players Clint Dempsey, Matt Besler, Kyle Beckerman, and several others. It will be interesting to see the carry over from their World Cup play. CoachUp coach and professional soccer player Chandler Hoffman thinks it will and that it begins at the grassroots level in youth sports. Chandler plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy and gave an interesting interview recently on the topic.
It seems that every four years, we're asking when soccer will finally make it in America. There's no questioning soccer's popularity after this World Cup run. It remains to be seen whether the sport can compete with the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. The USMNT may have just given soccer the final push it needs.