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U.S. National Team Makes Soccer a Big-Boy Sport

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2013, file photo, United States' Landon Donovan celebrates after scoring a goal against Mexico during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match in Columbus, Ohio. Donovan hasn't just resurrected his career with the U.S. team, he may be the Americans' most important player. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2013, file photo, United States' Landon Donovan celebrates after scoring a goal against Mexico during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match in Columbus, Ohio. Donovan hasn't just resurrected his career with the U.S. team, he may be the Americans' most important player. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

Anybody who is so 1980s as to suggest that Americans don’t care about soccer was not tuned into ESPN or following Twitter last Tuesday when the U.S. national team knocked off Mexico 2-0 to book a spot in the 2014 World Cup.

That fervent star-spangled sellout crowd at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, was as American as it gets. Those scarf-waving soccer junkies were as passionate and knowledgeable as Ohio State fans at a Buckeyes football game, and they gave the Mexican team the same kind of welcome they would give the hated Michigan Wolverines.

An hour before the game, they were chanting, “Dos a cero! Dos a cero! “ — two to zero, in Spanish, referring to the score by which the U.S. team had beaten Mexico the previous three times they played there, and, as it turned out, the same score by which they beat them Tuesday night.

Those fans were so wrapped up in World Cup qualifying that many of them stayed in the stadium after the match ended to watch the second half of the Honduras vs. Panama game on the video screen, as the United States needed Honduras to win or tie to secure the berth. In the final minutes, with the score tied 2-2, fans began chanting: “Blow the whistle! Blow the whistle!”

When the whistle blew, the U.S. players emerged from the locker room wearing “Qualified” T-shirts, and spraying bottles of champagne. It was the kind of scene once reserved for national teams of other countries. On Tuesday night, it looked very American.

Kobe Bryant, Billie Jean King and Reggie Bush were among the luminaries who posted shout-outs to the U.S. team on Twitter. Bush wrote: “Congrats to the USA Men’s Soccer Team qualifying for the 2014 World Cup! I will definitely be there to support.” And then he added: “Love the toughness by Landon Donovan to still compete in the match despite having severe pink eye!e_SDRq

ESPN was on the scene all day, dissecting the Mexican team’s troubles, the regional standings and the U.S. lineup and tactics with the same seriousness and fancy graphics as they do the NFL and NBA playoffs. On Wednesday morning, the United States’ qualification led SportsCenter and highlights were replayed all day. There was also much discussion of Mexico slipping to fifth place and in serious danger of not qualifying.

The game drew a 1.9 overnight TV rating, the highest ever for a World Cup qualifier. Columbus drew the most TV viewers with a 5.1 rating. Next best? Miami! Where else? The Miami-Fort Lauderdale market came in at 3.3, followed by Buffalo, Dayton, Washington, San Diego, New York City, Seattle, San Antonio and West Palm Beach.

Soccer is no longer a niche sport to be dismissed as boring and un-American. It is becoming more mainstream every day. A crowd of 67,385 showed up a few weeks ago for a Major League Soccer match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. Read that again. Slowly. A crowd of 67,385 for a regular-season MLS game. Yes, it was Clint Dempsey’s home debut, proving the point even more. The fans were not there to see Pele or Lionel Messi. They were there to see a U.S.-born-and-bred star play in a domestic league game.

With the popularity comes expectations. The United States has now qualified for seven World Cups in a row. Fans here aren’t satisfied just making it anymore. They want Jurgen Klinsmann’s team to make a run in Brazil next summer. A deep run.

They made the quarterfinals in 2002 in Japan and Korea, but failed to reach the second round in 2006 and were knocked out in the Round of 16 in 2010.

Dempsey is well aware of the heightened expectations, saying the Mexico celebration would be a short one.

“You’re happy. People are going to have a few beers and stuff like that. But the goal is to do well in Brazil,” he said. “You want to qualify for a World Cup and you want to do well. I’ve played in two World Cups. One I didn’t advance out of the group stage and the other we won the group but lost the next game. It would be nice to do something special in a World Cup, so hopefully we can do that.”

Now comes the hard part for Klinsmann. He has started 39 different players this year. He has to whittle that down to 23, and then pick a starting 11. Does he keep Mix Diskerud, whose calm on the ball and slick moves around the box led to Donovan’s goal Tuesday night? Does he keep Alejandro Bedoya, whose tireless work in right midfield was notable in the U.S. Gold Cup win and the win over Mexico? Who does he play at right back?

Klinsmann has plenty of options, a deeper pool than ever. He created an atmosphere of intense competition in which nobody’s job is guaranteed. He benched Jozy Altidore when he didn’t feel he was giving his all. He left Donovan off rosters after his self-imposed sabbatical. His constant roster moves have been debated by pundits and fans, yet another sign that yes, Americans do care about soccer. Americans also like to win. The pressure is on, Jurgen. You have nine months.