IRENE, South Africa (AP) — The United States' all-too-brief run at the World Cup was a smash hit.
Record numbers for TV broadcasts, Internet traffic and ticket sales. Bars and restaurants packed with fans, no matter the time. So much World Cup-related traffic it temporarily brought down Twitter's whole operation. Soccer not only went mainstream in the one country that's resisted the charms of the beautiful game, it became the center of attention.
Now the trick is making the love last.
"Without a doubt, the game has grown in our country," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Sunday, a day after the Americans were eliminated. "We understand that every four years, to some degree, that growth will be put to the test by the results of that World Cup. That's just the way it is. ... If we do take it further, then maybe that shows people the progress. When you don't, then you still have to keep going. So we've got to keep going."
Soccer has its core of die-hard fans in the United States and, every four years, there's a standing-room-only crowd on the World Cup bandwagon. But the tournament in South Africa had blockbuster potential, with all the pieces in place for a surge — and a lasting one at that — in the game's popularity in the United States.
The wall-to-wall coverage by ABC and ESPN is unprecedented. The U.S. team is a talented, entertaining bunch with its best players — Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey — in their prime. An opening game against England's glamour boys provided six months' worth of hype.
The first-round games only fed the fervor, with each game more gripping than the next, and the Americans soon found themselves riding a wave of unprecedented hype. By winning its group, the United States avoided traditional powerhouses Germany, Argentina, Spain and Brazil, and set up what looked like an easy road to the semifinals.
Rather than seizing what Donovan called a "massive opportunity," the Americans came out flat and needed only five minutes to fall behind Ghana on Saturday night. They managed to tie it up, only to give up another early goal in extra time.
"There's things there that when we look from inside, we know we responded well, a lot they can feel very good about," Bradley said. "At the same time, there's a pretty empty feeling right now because I think coming out of the first round, we felt there was a real chance of doing something bigger."
The good news is that the Americans showed the skeptics back home that soccer games have plenty of action and excitement, even if only a goal or two are scored. Now it's up to soccer's power brokers in the United States — and this goes beyond U.S. Soccer — to find a way to build on it, because standing pat until 2014 would be another massive opportunity wasted.
With a population of more than 309 million and a culture that prizes athletics, the United States will make strides if just a few more kids in every city and town get interested in the game. Many in the current crew talk about being inspired watching the 1994 World Cup, and this run could have the same impact.
"I hope so," Howard said. "We're one of the biggest countries in the world so we've got to start producing some megastars somewhere along the line. ... But you have to catch that bug first, so you hope this is all part of it for the next generation coming up. I'm sure it will be. I have no doubt."
The big key, then, is player development.
While Donovan played as well as pretty much anyone in South Africa and goalkeeper Howard was his usual solid self, the Americans still lag behind the world's powerhouses at most positions. U.S. Soccer has already appointed former captain Claudio Reyna to study the youth development system and come up with a comprehensive plan that can be used across the country.
But the same thing needs to happen for older players, whether they play in college, go straight to Major League Soccer or make the jump to Europe.
"To coach a national team, to play against the best teams in the world, to play in a Confederations Cup, to play in the World Cup, it gives you an ability to assess where we are, to look at players and say, 'Compared to the best players in the world at his particular position, (where) is he?'" Bradley said. "Now, you try then to help connect the dots with the programs below so now we're all working together to move this thing along. I think those things are happening."
MLS still isn't on par with the major leagues in Europe, but it's light years ahead of where it was 10, even five years ago. It needs to continue to improve. A stronger domestic league makes for stronger younger players, which makes for a stronger national team.
Right now, most young U.S. players jump at the chance to go to Europe as soon as they can. No surprise, considering that's where the big bucks and prestige are. But being on a European roster does a young, developing player no good if he's riding the bench, and it might actually set his career back. Exhibit A: Former phenom Freddy Adu. Ten bucks if you can name what team he's on these days.
No way MLS can compete with England's Premier League or Spain's La Liga — not for another decade or so, anyway. But if it can reach the caliber of, say, the Dutch or Belgian leagues, you'll see a quick acceleration in the talent level of the U.S. team. And the better the national team is, the more interest there is from the U.S. public.
Americans will get behind anybody who wins; just look back to March Madness and those cute and cuddly Butler Bulldogs. Slap U-S-A across the chests of those winners, and watch the fandenomenium ensue.
And then there's the potential mother lode that is the 2022 World Cup. If the United States wins the right to host it, it's all soccer, all the time for the next 12 years. The build-up will be unrelenting, the impact unavoidable. Most of the current U.S. team got hooked on soccer when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup. Just imagine how many more kids would be channeling their inner Messi in the ever-shrinking world we live in now.
It may not happen right away, it may not happen in 2014. But someday soon, the rest of the world just might be ruing the day the Americans ever discovered the "other" version of football.