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Speltz: Kicking it up a notch

2014-07-05T23:25:00Z 2014-07-23T20:33:27Z Speltz: Kicking it up a notchBy BILL SPELTZ of the Missoulian Ravalli Republic

If you haven’t been paying attention to World Cup soccer in Brazil, give it a try before it’s too late.

Perhaps you’re one of the reluctant who views soccer as little more than a series of incomplete passes with scarcely few highlights. If so, it’s time to get your head out of the sand.

Something special is brewing in America, fueled by a younger generation more in tune with the world and less apt to discriminate based on nationality. Television ratings reflect how relatively bored we’ve become with the World Series and NBA Finals and how sizzling-hot the World Cup has become.

It reminds me of the 1980s when John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg captured America’s imagination with their tennis rackets. Or the ’90s when Tiger Woods did the same with his golf clubs.

It’s the curious and uniformed like myself who are also helping spark the surge in American World Cup interest. When you’re sitting in a local car dealership and overhear half a dozen adults ask about the United States and its match against Belgium on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s exciting.

“It’s never been close to this,” observed Geoff Birnbaum, a local soccer enthusiast who has coached on the youth and high school levels for close to three decades. “I remember the (2006) World Cup where what a lot of sports people said was, ‘The circus comes to town, everybody goes to the circus. Then they go on with their lives.’

“I think there are a lot of events like that. But this is really different. Part of it is there’s a bigger foundation with soccer in America than there was even four years ago.”

The American team was eliminated by Belgium despite an inspiring effort by keeper Tim Howard. The fact the Yanks played Germany and Belgium to one-goal matches and qualified for the knockout round despite significant injuries makes me optimistic about their future under coach Jürgen Klinsmann.

Even without the red, white and blue, I find myself enthralled by the World Cup. I love the way heavy demands are placed on every player. I love the creativity and heart and the fact that some pot-bellied coach on the sidelines can’t keep altering the course of the match with timeouts.

I love how Americans purchased more tickets for the World Cup than any other nation except Brazil. I love how America continues to tune in with the semifinal and final rounds yet to come.

“What’s really different about this is the culture of the sport is understood better by Americans,” Birnbaum asserts. “They understand the passion of the game and emotion of the game and the suspense of who is going to solve the problem.

“In a way soccer is a really complex problem to solve over 90 minutes.”

Granted, this sport the rest of the world calls fútbol may never rival football when it comes to American interest. On the other hand, Tuesday’s match between the United States and Belgium drew a larger audience than all but two college football games last season.

There are close to 800,000 high school soccer players in this country. Only football, track and basketball attract more preps.

If you’re still not sold on soccer, so be it. The sport doesn’t need you anyway, especially in the Northwest where Major League Soccer is huge.

The American sports scene is changing in some pretty terrific ways if you ask me. Soon we will be watching MLS games on Sundays, courtesy of ESPN and FOX Sports.

“I still don’t think that I can say I totally understand it,” Birnbaum said of soccer’s surge in American popularity.

“I’m sort of amazed by it. And it seems like something that’s not going to go away.”

We’ve all heard that before. This time feels different.

Reporter ​Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

Copyright 2015 Ravalli Republic. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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