“Spain’s a great team any time, and it was a tough test to play them on the eve of the Gold Cup,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “We’ve always chosen to take these challenges and to play against the best teams because it’s the best way to see what the game at the highest level is all about. It’s the best way for us to improve.”
From the team’s perspective, that’s true. But which event will carry more weight in terms of public perception remains to be seen, and the importance of perception can’t be discounted when attempting to build up a fan base.
As much as pure soccer fans may cringe at the thought, a large sector of American sports fans has no idea what the Gold Cup is. These are the folks – the casual viewer – that soccer needs to attract to take that next step. A nationally televised weekend game on ESPN against the world’s best team certainly provided a platform.
An argument could be made that the U.S. lineup wasn’t the best of the best or that the focus was on playing well in the upcoming CONCACAF tournament, which actually means something. But at the end of the day, viewers saw the U.S. team shut out and dominated in a game that even players struggled to find a positive takeaway from.
“There’s nothing much to like,” U.S. forward Jozy Altidore said. “I guess that we didn’t quit. We kept playing, but it was a tough game for us.”
There is no doubt that soccer has experienced significant growth in the United States in recent years. The success of the 2010 World Cup is a clear indicator. Last year’s Spain-Netherlands final was the most-watched U.S. English-language soccer broadcast save for the U.S. women’s World Cup win in 1999.
The United States’ opening game against England last year drew more U.S. viewers than any first-round match in U.S. history, and ratings for the U.S. men’s national team were up nearly 70 percent in group play.
However, while the World Cup gives a quadrennial boost to the sport stateside, that tournament is not enough to fully engage the casual (or potential) fan. That’s why games like Saturday’s, even with nothing tangible at stake, are incredibly important.
The U.S.-Spain friendly was an opportunity for the United States to show they are regularly capable of competing with the world’s best. Among some spectators (both American and international) is a perception that the United States is a second-tier team.
U.S. Soccer has worked hard to shake the tag. Outings like these do little to help that cause.
“Being down by three goals [at the half], it hurts soccer for the U.S. fans,” said fan Terence Rhea on how the game could impact overall perception.
Fan Mo Diop, who came up from New York City, even jumped ship after the half – albeit jokingly – by getting decked out in Spain national team gear with his friends.
“I was wearing this [American flag] tie when I got here,” Diop explained, pointing to his pocket. “But we figured we’re losing 3-0, it’s our first time here, so I just bought a Spain shirt. It’s all in fun, though.”
And while the outcome certainly stung, fans saw progress in the amount of attention the game garnered.
“[The result of the game] sucks, but it’s good for raising visibility,” said Rhea, who drove 17 hours from Chicago to attend. “We’re part of American Outlaws, a group which raises soccer awareness in the U.S. … I’m a young generation of fans, and we’re starting to build.”
In all, the match drew 64,121 fans, a record turnout for a U.S. men’s national team match in New England.
“Spain is a really good team,” Diop said. “All these people wouldn’t have come here if it was like El Salvador. Everyone knows Spain won the World Cup, so it’s a pretty interesting game. And that’s good for soccer.”
A better result wouldn’t hurt either.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz