NHL and NBA playoffs continue, and the NFL just concluded the annual orgy of miscalculation that is the draft. But the sport that dwarfs them all is about to crown a champion again, and today was a red-letter day for American fans. US men’s national soccer team coach Bruce Arena named his roster for the World Cup finals, which start next month in Germany.
The list offers few surprises; it’s a mix of veterans and newcomers, the merits of whom have been debated for weeks, if not months, in bars and on soccer fields around the country. Keller, in his last finals for sure; Reyna and McBridge likely also to end their national team careers. Donovan and Beasley taking control of the team. The raw promise of Johnson. The fragility of O’Brien. The speed of Heyduk and Lewis. The unpredictability of Pope.
Over the last few weeks, my conversations about the US have had a somewhat fatalistic tone. The Americans find themselves in a tough group, facing Italy, Ghana, and the Czech Republic. Particurlarly in light of the Americans’ recent uninspired play, many fans, including me, think that we’ll be doing well simply to slip through to the next round. Italy may be the deciding match. The US should beat Ghana and may lose to the Czechs. Italy often starts slowly in the finals. The US has its best chance, perhaps, if it can catch the Azzurri before the Italians find their feet, so to speak.
To write so casually about the intricacies of international soccer to an audience that is mostly American, and to expect that a significant fraction of that group takes most or even all of my meaning, suggests to me that top level soccer has achieved a surprising degree of acceptance in mainstream American culture — even while the top division of American professional soccer is, at best, somewhere between #5 and #10 in the list of “top” pro sports nationally. Soccer in this country is and will always be an immigrants’ game, but in a country of immigrants, that’s the strength of the sport. My own team this Spring starts natives of Iran, Greece, the Netherlands, Turkey, and England as well as the US.
In Pittsburgh, which like a lot of old industrial cities has a very long and very rich tradition of high quality soccer in its ethnic communities, I see suburban kids at the mall, and students at my law school, wearing club and national team jerseys on a regular basis as unselfconsciously as I see adults wearing Steelers outfits. In our law library today, I approached a student wearing a Del Piero #10 and asked who would be wearing that number in Germany. Totti, he thought, though injury might preclude it.
The finals begin June 9 in Munich and conclude July 9 in Berlin.
UPDATE: Grant McCracken has a recent post about the popularity of soccer in the US that is weirdly ahistorical and (for an anthropologist) acultural.