If you’re not watching the World Cup, you are increasingly becoming part of the minority in the United States. The three US team matches this time around have each broken ESPN’s previous records for soccer ratings. Last Sunday’s game against Portugal had a US audience of 25 million.
The fact that the team has performed so well is part of the recipe. The match on Thursday against Germany was, to put it in the words of US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, ‘a tremendous accomplishment.’ For many new casual fans, it has been difficult to understand how one win, one tie, and one loss can translate into advancing into the bracket. This World Cup has been a crash course of soccer education for many in this country.
The US team went up against big odds to advance to the knockout round. Theirs was in the most difficult group in the World Cup, facing Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. The German team is ranked #2, but after #1 Spain was knocked out early, they may just be the best competitors this time around. Portugal is ranked #4, and have been eliminated. Ghana, also eliminated now, were the team that knocked the US team out of the tournament for the last two World Cups.
Next, the US team faces Belgium. They’re not the toughest team playing in the tournament. Belgium faced a relatively easy group, and is ranked #11 (the US team is ranked #13). Belgium has many A-list players from European leagues, many of whom weren’t even played in the most recent game. Already sure to advance, many of the starting players sat out of the final game of group stage. They’ve also played all of their matches in the southern half of Brazil, where it is much cooler and less humid. Belgium will be presenting a much more rested, fresh team on Tuesday against the US.
The US team will be considered the underdogs in the match against Belgium, but not by much. Midfielder Michael Bradley will be looking to overcome a disappointing World Cup so far, and the team as a whole will be looking to prevent the last-minute goals that have become Belgium’s trademark this year.
But more exciting than the game itself will be the culture building up around it. Americans are beginning to really discover what it’s like to participate in a global tournament. Tuesday’s game will be a big one for the US team, but even bigger for the state of soccer in America.