If you happened to be driving eastbound on Interstate 540 near Knightdale Monday night, you might have noticed the guy in the white truck lift his hands, slam them back onto the steering wheel and holler.
That would have been me, yelling in disbelief as Ghana scored a goal to tie the U.S. in the World Cup soccer match to open both teams’ bid for the World Cup.
Had you kept pace, you would have seen me do much the same a few minutes later on the Knightdale Bypass when John Brooks made what would be the winning goal for the U.S. in that contest.
That I would get so excited over a soccer match is a testament to the sport’s growing popularity in the U.S.
Though soccer still badly trails football, basketball and baseball in popularity, it’s hard to argue that soccer is reaching a wider and wider audience with each year.
Here in the Triangle, fans of women’s soccer have been spoiled for more than two decades by the on-field dominance of the UNC women’s team. High schools everywhere have soccer teams. That wasn’t always the case. East Wake didn’t have any such thing in the 1980s when football was king in the high school ranks. I’m not sure what East Wake head coach Johnny Sasser would have thought about having to share his football field with a soccer team. Former Wake Forest-Rolesville football coach, the late Rock Harrison, definitely didn’t like the idea. He had to be pushed and prodded to allow soccer games on his football field. I don’t think he ever liked it. But WF-R was an area trailblazer, establishing a high school team in the 1970s, when the school mostly had to play against private school competition.
Today, soccer is everywhere, it seems. CASL is an enormous entity that has become an economic engine of some import to Raleigh and Wake County. Even the little bitty town of Youngsville has its own league, YAKS – Youngsville Area Kids Soccer – where my children broke their chops on the game as six- and eight-year-olds.
The best area players particpate in travel teams and play nearly year-round. Once the domain of the wealthier parts of Wake County, there are now players in all parts of Wake County who eat, sleep and live out of a soccer bag.
But the World Cup raises the blood pressure of more than just the rabid soccer fan. Casual observers like me slam the steering wheel or download smartphone apps just to keep up with the action.
During the last World Cup, I happened to be in Mexico City when Mexico played a World Cup match. The city stopped. The people who were feeding us lunch that day, took the first part of the afternoon off and watched the game on teleivision in the living room/kitchen of their two-room house. In other parts of the city, while we were there, people opened their homes to neighbors so they could all see the action. It didn’t matter whether Mexico was playing or not. They watched. Soccer was, and is, their game.
For many Americans, soccer is almost an Olympic sport. We get excited about it once every four years. The U.S. team’s history in this worldwide event has been pretty checkered. It was just a few World Cups back that the U.S. finally qualified for the actual tournament. While the Americans have made the last several tournaments, they’ve never really been considered a threat to win the whole shooting match. Even this year’s coach, Jurgen Klinsman, has said, in effect, that the U.S. wouldn’t win it.
Still, it’s interesting to see the excitement building around these parts as the U.S. opens its bid for World Cup glory. It’s a different world today than it was just a few years ago.