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When John Brooks headed the go-ahead shot past goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey in the United States' World Cup win over Ghana on Monday, an unconscious "wow" escaped my lips.

It was one of those moments when even a soccer-clueless American who alighted on ESPN en route to the Cleveland Indians pregame show could understand what the world sees in its "football," especially if he loitered there long enough to watch the underdog Americans desperately try to preserve a 1-0 lead and had seen Ghana finally tie it.

The game had it all: history (Ghana defeated the U.S. in their previous two meetings in the World Cup), drama (a Clint Dempsey goal in the first 30 seconds) and countless harrowing moments (when Ghana threatened to tie) -- and finally an amazing header from a sub playing in only his fifth international game.

Although it seemed like an attention-grabbing moment for American soccer, my memory shook me back to reality when it conjured the figures from a Washington Post-ABC News survey I had read the day before: Only 28 percent of Americans said they planned to watch the World Cup this summer. The poll also reported that 28 percent find the sport to be "a big bore," compared to the 19 percent who find it "exciting."

Twenty-eight percent is a lot of people in a nation of 317 million, of course. But it's worth remembering that polls show that about two-thirds of Americans follow pro football and fully 80 percent of the people in Brazil followed the last World Cup. Even though interest in soccer is growing, 31 percent of Americans say they watched some of it the last time.

What does all this mean? Maybe that the U.S, a sports bully in just about everything else, needs to have some serious success on the world stage before the soccer-indifferent come over to the other side.

It strikes me that at least some of those in the bored-stiff category would change their minds if they had witnessed that stirring 2-1 U.S. victory. But most probably didn't see it, one reason interest in soccer in America hasn't grown faster. A lot of Americans, particularly those in the older age groups, are already all-in on the sports they follow and aren't interested in picking up another one they don't know.

The dearth of scoring is what makes soccer a difficult sell to many Americans, who would be every bit as unhappy with baseball if the games were 1-0, 2-1 or, God forbid, nil-nil. In an age where an ADD-impaired American wields the TV remote like a portable machine gun -- finding touchdowns, home runs, acrobatic saves, 35-foot three-pointers and 40-foot putts at a flick of the finger -- all that time spent in the middle of a soccer field feels like an eternity.

The sport got some good news when ESPN announced that the U.S.-Ghana game drew a 7.0 rating. ESPN said that it was the highest overnight rating ever for a World Cup game on ESPN or ESPN2. A single national ratings point represents 1 percent of the total number, or 1,156,000 households for the 2013-14 season, so again, that is a positive number.

Lest we get too carried away by that, it should be noted that it wouldn't have made the top 50 most-watched sports telecasts in 2013, the top 26 of which were NFL games, including the Super Bowl (which drew the top 46.7 rating) and 16 during the regular season.

But if we acknowledge that the NFL is in a class by itself, that 7.0 rating would have ranked around No. 30 on a non-NFL list, a long way from the college football national-title game (15.3) but in the neighborhood of Game 7 of the Indiana-Miami NBA Eastern Conference finals last season, the Louisiana State-Alabama regular-season football game and a Kansas-North Carolina third-round NCAA basketball tournament game.

Those are good neighbors to have. Americans know those sports. None has the untapped audience and potential upside of soccer.

Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.

bhunter@dispatch.com

June 18, 2014
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