Despite the U.S. national soccer team’s elimination from the World Cup July 1, unfortunate American historical figures suddenly found their faces poorly Photoshopped into goalkeeper Tim Howard’s. Viral internet memes and one-liners touted “things Tim Howard could save” as the goalkeeper “won the internet.”
Howard saved 16 shots in the 2-1 loss to Belgium, more than any World Cup keeper since 1966. “It’s heartbreaking. I don’t think we could have given it any more,” a tearful Howard choked out after the loss.
Americans showed they appreciated the effort with unprecedented support, leading many to predict a bright future for U.S. soccer. More Americans bought tickets to Brazil than any other nation. And stateside for Belgium, 30,000 spectators crowded into Chicago’s Soldier Field alone, a crowd unheard of four years ago.
Naturally, the World Cup’s popularity had a number of factors, not the least of which was Brazil’s American-friendly time zone. On the pitch, a record 136 goals lit up a hotly contested group stage. That brought ESPN a 40-plus percent spike in ratings over 2010. But more long-term trends can spur optimism from American soccer leaders.
With many parents looking for safer sports than football, soccer may be set to take advantage. Capital Area Soccer League in Raleigh, N.C., saw a surge of girls as the U.S. women made the World Cup final in 2011 and won Olympic gold in 2012. That’s on par with national numbers, business development director Katharine Kelley told me. This year, most registrants are boys younger than 10 who are signing up for the first time.
The emerging subculture has brought international investors, with Major League Soccer crowds up by more than 10 percent since 2010. Orlando’s 2015 expansion team and its Brazilian owner just landed Kaká, a former FIFA player of the year and one of the world’s biggest names. World power Manchester City, led by an Abu Dhabi royal, is overseeing the inception of Yankee Stadium’s New York City FC, also set for 2015. Britain’s David Beckham is fighting the city of Miami for his privately funded stadium plan.
But perhaps the biggest driver of interest has been social media. High-definition camera phones didn’t exist until after the 2010 World Cup. For Millennials—the majority of the often-painted or Captain America–clad fans at watch parties—that means more exposure to international traditions and viral videos after big European matches. It means more access to live games and a window into players’ lives off the field.
“You feel like you know Clint Dempsey, or that you know Tim Howard now because you saw him on Instagram or Facebook, and you’re retweeting him,” Kelley said. Both players shared publicly this World Cup cycle how they put faith in Christ in adversity. Dempsey overcame his sister’s death from a brain aneurysm, and Howard found peace with Tourette’s syndrome.
Howard’s tearful effort against Belgium brought international praise, not the least of which came on social media from Belgium’s own Vincent Kompany: “Two words. TIM HOWARD. #Respect.” U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann said the close-knit squad “made their country proud.” Millions saw a side of soccer they hadn’t seen, despite a familiar loss in the Round of 16.
Of course, not everyone was paying attention. Nearly two thirds of Americans didn’t care about the World Cup, an NBC poll said. The New York Times itself took two days to realize it had misspelled U.S. player DeAndre Yedlin as “Yellin.” Call it growing pains. But further exposure to soccer’s role models may change that sooner rather than later.