Soccer is no longer a novelty in the U.S.
By GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency
The U.S. national soccer team jogs during a training session in Johannesburg June 17, 2010. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
JOHANNESBURG - It is a country slowly falling in love.
Soccer was once a novelty, a sport for the minority in the United States.
Now the majority -- white, black, Latino, whoever -- have fallen for U.S. soccer.
Landon Donovan is a household name. Tim Howard's ribs are now of national importance. And the Bradleys, both father and son, have made headlines.
The U.S. approach to soccer and its national team is much different than before. Americans were very much like Canadians, supporting nations linked to individual heritage, be it Italy, Mexico, or wherever, instead of wholeheartedly supporting the red, white, and blue.
Now there's an identity with this year's U.S. side. And upward of 40,000 Americans have made the trip over to South Africa to inspire.
Those I've met in Johannesburg are not only knowledgeable, but passionate and inspired by what they see from their boys.
The growth over recent years has been consistent. It's come through investment. And it's come through winning, particularly beating Spain in last year's Confederations Cup.
Years of dominating CONCACAF is one thing, but last year's run in South Africa gave the team legitimacy. And it is recognized at ground level at this tournament. And with recognition, confidence within the team has grown.
A lot of dollars have been put into U.S. soccer and it's been fruitful for those who have invested. ESPN recognized as much, and are ready to take their English language soccer coverage to the next level. World Cup ratings are already up almost 65% this time around.
There is money to be made in U.S. soccer. And with success comes a whole lot more money. Nevermind economics -- that doesn't matter for the players. But status does. And the players are very well aware how winning can change lives in the good ol' U-S-of-A.
This year, that kind of life changing success is within their grasp in South Africa. And true belief is setting in.
The United States will be an overwhelming favourite heading into Friday's match with Slovenia at Ellis Park. Johannesburg has had a steady influx of Yanks arriving from across the country for days. And they're here to see a Win.
Goalkeeper Howards' ribs are of concern. But even if they continue to bother him, the U.S. has a plethora of depth at that position as backup.
Brad Guzan is more than capable to step in if needed.
The U.S. doesn't boast a fast back four, but they're certainly physical, steady and experienced enough to be effective. Oguchi Onyewu battling through injury to feature is a testament to his work ethic. Onyewu's presence is essential for the team, both because of his quality and stature.
The midfield isn't flashy, but no team can sleep on opener goal scorer Clint Dempsey, or Donovan playing as a recess striker. Both are on fine form, and will be interesting to see how they adapt for Slovenia, keeping the ball against an inferior side.
Up front, Jozy Altidore had a rough season at Hull City, yet rises to the occasion for the national team. And despite Confederations Cup star Charlie Davies missing out on South Africa, long-time MLSers Edson Buddle and Robbie Findlay have done well, being chosen over European-based struggler Eddie Johnson.
Give credit to Coach Bob Bradley's superior organization for allowing his players to thrive. Bradley's done extraordinarily well with this athletic, heady bunch.
Discipline has been a major factor. Bradley has his men staying in a secluded area outside Pretoria. There's nothing to do but train and focus on the task at hand. In there 2006, three-and-out stay in Germany, the U.S., under Bruce Arena, stayed in downtown Hamburg, with plenty to distract from the game.
This no-nonsense demeanor inspires his side to play as a team, through and through. It isn't about the individual. It's about team and system. Teams such as France or England should take note of the value of putting together a well-balanced side over simply putting the best 11 players on the team sheet.
Bradley has done so effectively. And now his team isn't just a legitimate favourite to top Group C, but also go very deep in the tournament.