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Soccer: U.S. has World Cup fever

United States' Clint Dempsey celebrates with his teammates after scoring his side's second goal during the group G World Cup match between against Portugal at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil on Sunday. The two teams played to a 2-2 draw.
AP United States' Clint Dempsey celebrates with his teammates after scoring his side's second goal during the group G World Cup match between against Portugal at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil on Sunday. The two teams played to a 2-2 draw.

Chicago soccer legend Willy Roy noticed the strangest thing during a trip last week to Wood Dale American Legion Post 1205: People wanted to talk soccer.

Even for a man who built his life around the beautiful game, this almost never happens.

“Older people, my friends, are watching World Cup games and trying to follow, so they ask me, ‘Willy, what is offsides? What is the penalty kick?’” said Roy, 71, a U.S. national team player from 1965-73 who also coached the Chicago Sting to two championships in the 1980s. “So you try to educate these people, because there’s a growing interest in soccer from my generation, too. More people are saying, ‘Wow, this game is interesting.’”

Sorry, soccer mockers, it definitely is.

You don’t need ESPN reporting a 23 percent increase in viewers from the 2010 World Cup as confirmation. You hear it around town in casual conversation about American midfielder Clint Dempsey’s broken nose, and talk-radio debate over Team USA coach Juergen Klinsmann breaking his team’s spirit. More proof comes in Sunday’s watch party for the U.S.-Portugal game moving to lower Hutchinson Field in Grant Park to accommodate a World Cup fan base in Chicago larger and livelier than many envisioned.

It has become cool to know a cap isn’t just something you put on your head. John Brooks, the son of an American serviceman from Chicago, didn’t have to score the winning goal against Ghana to make this a local story.

A futbol city indeed.

“I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm,” said Mary Jane Bender, executive director of the Illinois Youth Soccer Association. “I’m trying to understand it myself. I think the generation who were kids during the 1994 World Cup here are adults now whose children play the sport.”

Bender belonged to Chicago’s 1994 World Cup organizing committee, when Soldier Field drew 312,725 fans for five games. Tribune sports columnist Bernie Lincicome declared in the July 10, 1994 edition: “It is a mistake to believe that the World Cup has changed anyone’s mind about soccer here.”

On the editorial page, the experience was deemed “a smashing success.” Surely, opinions still differ on the Cup’s lasting impact on Chicago, but the fact remains soccer was a harder sell 20 years ago.

Participation numbers in the sport steadily multiplied locally and throughout the state, reflected by Bender’s IYSA increasing membership more than 400 percent since 1994 – from 17,000 registered players to 75,000 this year. Despite similarly significant gains in the city and Chicagoland high schools reflecting the game’s growth, oddly enough, passion for the sport can be hardest to quantify with the Fire. Whether at Soldier Field, in Naperville, or the 20,000-seat Toyota Park in Bridgeview, where they have played since 2006, the Fire never have averaged more than 17,887.

“I wish the stadium was in Chicago,” Roy said. “If [the Sting] would have had a wonderful stadium like the Fire, you wouldn’t have been able to buy a ticket. The Fire, to me, is still hard to identify. I don’t think I can name five Fire players, and I follow the game. I don’t think they have an identity at this moment. But I think they can achieve one.”

Identifying five Team USA players comes easier for Roy, who knows Klinsmann, and praised the coach for deflecting attention from his young team with controversial pre-tournament comments that America couldn’t win.

“Klinsmann has done an outstanding job,” Roy said. “I know the U.S. doesn’t have the talent the top-echelon teams have. He was just trying to take the pressure off. I think the U.S. is on the verge of doing something special, and the country’s getting behind that.”

To the American sporting audience, not even cold beer sells quite like a fighting spirit and collective resolve. And if that audience includes soccer fans who only get excited once every 4 years, so be it.

“Americans, in general,
are event-driven, so I don’t see jumping aboard now a big issue,” Bender said. “At least you’re watching. And, if you are enjoying it, who cares?”

Engaging beats ignoring, every time – and even in extra time.

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