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National Columnist

Cup of cheer: It's so easy to fall in love with this dogged U.S. soccer team

Jurgen Klinsmann has helped build a team really worth rooting for. (USATSI)
Jurgen Klinsmann has helped build a team really worth rooting for. (USATSI)

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So many reasons to love this US soccer team that just advanced out of the World Cup's so-called Group of Death. Patriotism is one reason. Our players don't flop? That's another. The way Clint Dempsey left a match with a broken nose, came back that game with a wad of cotton shoved up his nostrils, and then scored in the next match by battering the ball over the goal line with his rib? Another.

So many reasons. Too many to list here, so instead let's just talk about my favorite reason to fall in love with this team:

We're an underdog.

Finally, mercifully, the United States of America is an underdog. And that's a relief. Politically, economically, militarily, we're a global heavy. We call the shots in a lot of areas, or think we should. Hey, it's how it is.

We're a bully in sports, too. Basketball is global, but the biggest league is here. Same with baseball. Same with hockey, and we don't even love hockey. But the NHL is here because we're America, and America is dominant, and that's kind of cool.

But American athletic dominance makes it hard to get into international sports.

We play baseball in the Olympics, and maybe we're not necessarily favored to beat Cuba, but that's a sport we invented. We win gold in baseball, and ... aren't we supposed to win gold in baseball? That's our sport.

We play basketball in the Olympics, and we don't always win the gold medal, but we should. Another sport we invented, perfected, dominated. We dominated with our JV, our college athletes, until the rest of the world's professionals finally caught up and so we unleashed hell. And our Dream Team dominated. And when we have the right coach, we keep on dominating.

Forever the U.S. men's basketball team has been my favorite team for a few reasons, one being that I don't really root for any other squads. Grew up an Oklahoma football fan, moved away, outgrew it. Went to Florida, covered the Gators for the school paper, was taught by my mentors on the Florida beat to never, ever cheer for the team you cover.

So what did that leave me? That left me with the U.S. basketball team, and for years that's what had my heart. But it's kind of hard to be madly in love with a team that's supposed to win. How do you get excited to turn on the TV and watch your team play a game it better not lose, over and over and over? There's no real joy, only relief. We won! Nah, that's not the emotion. This is:

Whew. We didn't lose.

That's not fun. That's stressful. Rooting for the U.S. soccer team? Some stress, sure, but all fun. We've been playing with house money in this World Cup, positioned in the same group as Germany, Portugal and Ghana. It's called the Group of Death, and while I love what U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said about it, he was bombastically kidding -- or at least exaggerating -- when he said it's called the Group of Death "because we're in it, too."

In an alternate universe, no, we wouldn't be an underdog in soccer. We're still the U-S-of-A, one of the most affluent, populous, sports-loving-est countries in the world. Everything a country needs to excel in soccer, we have it here. Youth leagues with millions of players between ages 5-19. More than 300,000 youth coaches. More than 600,000 volunteers. Fields everywhere. There are close to 3,000 colleges that offer soccer as a competitive, sanctioned sport.

But we're underdogs in this sport when it comes to the world's best -- and always will be, near as I can tell -- because soccer doesn't get our best athletes. Or our second-best. Or third. Our best young athletes are funneled into football and basketball. Baseball grabs its share, plus there are other legitimate draws. Wrestling. Golf. Tennis. Boxing. Now MMA. When it comes to sports, we're Golden Corral. Gorge on whatever you want. It's all here.

When it comes to soccer, though, we're the doggie bag. Leftovers? Here.

There are some exceptions, obviously. Some kids, some great athletes, fall in love with soccer and never leave it. Maybe Jozy Altidore would've been a great point guard, but we'll never know. Imagine Clint Dempsey playing third base, if he hadn't fallen so hard for soccer.

By and large, though, the best of us are playing something else. Which means we send the rest of us to play Germany or Portugal. And German (and Portuguese) kids are playing soccer. I mean, all of them. Hockey when it's cold, basketball for some, but soccer's the thing there. When I say soccer is their football, I'm not talking linguistics. I'm talking love. Soccer is their football, what they love and adore and, as sports fans, support above all else.

Soccer is something we're still arguing about in this country. Write a nice story about the sport, as I did a few days ago, and you have idiots trying to shout it down.

That's why we're underdogs in soccer. Because of people like that. And there are way, way too many people like that, mouth-breathers who equate watching soccer to watching paint dry because they simply don't understand, maybe just don't appreciate, the artistry and athletic ability it takes to kick a ball 60 yards to a teammate running at full speed, and for that teammate to catch the ball on his thigh or chest and to somehow smother the ball downward, to his feet, as if it were made of cotton and not bouncy, inflated synthetic leather.

Anyway, the sport's hard to play. And in our country it's harder, because our best athletes aren't playing it. Imagine LeBron James growing up loving soccer, growing so big that he can't really play at forward, so he moves to keeper. Imagine, then, Johnny Manziel at forward. Austin Jackson, athletic enough to play center field for the Detroit Tigers -- but only after he turned down a scholarship to play point guard at Georgia Tech, because he's explosive enough to play basketball in the ACC -- in the midfield. Big, strong Chris Paul at sweeper? Please. I mean, really. Just stop and give us the damn trophy.

But that's another alternate universe, and not this one. In this one, we have great athletes playing soccer, but not our greatest. And so when we outplay Portugal in a draw, and when we compete with Germany in a loss, and when we beat Ghana and use all of those results to advance out of the Group of Death, we have a team worthy of our love and an event worthy of our attention and a spectacle unfolding right before our eyes.

Who doesn't love an underdog? Whoever has to play us next.

 
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