After 90 excruciating, nail biting minutes (not to mention a 4 plus day wait after Coulibaly-gate) Landon Donovan gave the USA a much deserved goal and passage into the knock out stages of the World Cup. The goal and eventual result was a just outcome and has placed the beautiful game on the forefront of just about every American media outlet's news headlines. Even the most hardened of the mouth breathing - I hate soccer for no reason population has to stand up and take notice.
A variety of near misses and another blown call on Clint Dempsey's goal, which was incorrectly ruled offsides, provided the drama and set the stage for Donovan's extra time winner. The victory also ensures that the USMNT and soccer remain a huge story and large part of the American consciousness....for the next several days anyway. Another victory on Saturday over a beatable Ghana, a team which failed to score from the run of play in all three of their group matches, will escalate the American hype machine even higher.
What does this mean for the future of the game in America?
In the short term, it's too early to start looking at comparisons to the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 Olympic hockey team. We'll need a sem-finals appearance at the least to justifiably reach those accomplishments. What is certain is that American soccer has reached the highest level of popularity in the history of this nation with all signs pointing upward.
The American victory today will not mean that thousands of additional fans will automatically start streaming into MLS stadia come July. It doesn't mean that soccer is suddenly respected and is set to take it's rightful place among football, baseball, basketball, and hockey as a sport deserving the same media coverage and attention. It doesn't even mean that clowns like Jim Rome, Dan Bernstein, Dan McNeil, Norman Chad and whoever else continues to beat the tired, old "nobody cares" drum will magically be enlightened.
What it does signify is that America is ready to take that next step as a soccer nation. All you need to do is attend one of the various World Cup watch parties to realize that something is happening that has not happened before in this country. Millions of people are as passionate about soccer as the blue and orange clad faithful are about the Bears (or any other NFL team). The next step involves being ingrained in the American pysche as something that is passed on from generation to generation. It's happening now and it can't be ignored for much longer. ESPN's wall to wall coverage is ensuring that it's not ignored, even by the traditional soccer hating neanderthals.
While this step is an important one. The next leap will come in December 2010 when FIFA announces the hosts for World Cup 2018 and 2022. If America is fortunate enough to win a bid for either year, the groundswell that began in 1994 will erupt and elevate soccer in mainstream America as the "major" sport we've always known it was.