USOCCER.COM The U.S. starting XI sing the national anthem before the Belgium-U.S. game on July 1.
USOCCER.COM
The U.S. starting XI sing the national anthem before the Belgium-U.S. game on July 1.

After the “Why do Americans call it soccer?” question, the next most frequently asked question that I’ve fielded about U.S. soccer during my semester in Spain and then during my summer in Italy is: Do you really think the U.S. can compete with the best teams in the world? Do you really think they have a chance in the World Cup?

My answer has always been the same. Yes.

And although the U.S. team came up short in the knockout round game against Belgium last week, their performance earned them the appreciation of a nation and the esteem of the rest of the world.

For this World Cup and the last, I’ve had the good fortune to be in Europe during the tournament. In 2010 I was travelling in Germany, and this summer, I’m working as an au pair in Marsala, Italy. Though the U.S. men’s national team saw similar results this year as in 2010 — advancing out of a tough group and making it to the knockout round — the rhetoric surrounding the stars and stripes has changed drastically in four years’ time.

Maybe it’s because the U.S. demonstrated pure grit and put forth a team effort in every minute of every game of this tournament. Maybe it’s because players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard have been successfully playing for clubs abroad. Maybe it’s because the U.S. beat Ghana convincingly, tied Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and lost a close, well-played match against Germany, the team that demolished Brazil 7-1 in a stunning semifinal match. Or maybe it’s because American sports fans are finally paying attention to the world’s most popular sport. Whatever the reason, Europeans are finally, if albeit reluctantly, beginning to dole out some much-deserved respect to the U.S. squad.

In 2010, my German friends, like most of their countrymen, viewed the U.S. team as the ultimate underdog and a 1-1 draw with England, a 0-0 draw with Slovenia and a thrilling 1-0 win over Algeria — enough to secure a berth in the knockout round — were seen as flukes, short-lived moments of victory for the Americans who were then defeated 2-1 by Ghana in a heartbreaker of a match to end their World Cup bid.

Coming into this year’s World Cup, it seemed to me that the perception of American soccer had not much changed.

“Which U.S. defender can contain Ronaldo?” asked one friend.

“There’s no way the U.S. makes it out of group,” predicted several others.

“I’d like to see them move on, but Ghana is just too strong this year, and the U.S. can’t keep up with Germany,” said another, delivering the opinion in the tone of someone breaking the news of the death of a beloved pet.

Though four years may not have changed the rhetoric of the Europeans, four stellar World Cup performances did. Led by Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and captain Clint Dempsey, the U.S. played a brand of aggressive, precise soccer and relied on teamwork instead of star power to take second place in the “group of death.”

Losing to Belgium in overtime, especially considering Howard’s record-setting performance between the posts that earned him the respect of Belgian defender Vincent Kompany (as was made evident on his twitter account) was an especially bitter pill to swallow. Nevertheless, the U.S. has shown the world that they can indeed compete with the best teams in the world.

And now, especially with Italy’s early exit, my European counterparts are singing a different tune.

“Impressive,” they said.

“Bet [John] Brooks agent will be busy now,” tweeted another.

“They should’ve won the group,” lamented the former doubter.

When the next World Cup rolls around, I’m sure I will still have to provide some sort of feeble answer to the why-call-it-soccer question, but hopefully, I won’t have to defend the credentials of the U.S. team.

Because after this World Cup performance, they speak for themselves.

Laura Wagner is a rising senior in the College and a former sports editor of The Hoya. The Au Pair Diaries appears every other Monday at thehoya.com.

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