The first-ever arrival of soccer's World Cup to America's shores brings it with it the question: How would America do if Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr. were the forwards, Joe Montana was playing center-half, and the goalkeeper was Karl Malone?
Would Colombia still be in a nationwide state of mourning after a 2-1 loss to the United States? Would the U.S. team still be a 50-to-1 longshot to win the Cup, just ahead of Saudi Arabia? Would the games remain on ESPN instead of CBS?It is a major curiosity of sport that the world's most popular game is an afterthought in the United States of America. Virtually every sports-conscious country in the world embraces soccer with a passion except one. This one. Everywhere else, the Michael Jordans and Joe Montanas dream of growing up to play in the World Cup. In America, the Michael Jordans and Joe Montanas don't even know there is a World Cup, let alone one to dream about.
As a consequence, the United States national soccer team is an annual collection of either recent immigrants or of refugees who, early in their lives, jumped off the football/basketball/baseball express. It is never an awful team, but it is never the upper echelon of American athletes, either.
America's sports of choice reflect an unflagging and fierce penchant for independence. While it's true that the original disembarkees on Plymouth Rock weren't fleeing from the oppressions of soccer - which, like just about every sport except the 200-meter dash, was yet to be invented in the 17th Century - they were fleeing from anybody telling them what to do.
Inalienable rights extended to leisure time, such as it would become, and over the decades the evolutionary process went to work. Baseball, American football and basketball followed, all American originals, with hockey thrown in for good measure by the Canadians.
America went to work on perfecting its own sports. Who needed the rest of the world?
The result is the ironic condition currently greeting the World Cup: Old country people from all those homelands coming to visit the relatives they sent to America, and finding out the immigrants forgot to pack the ball and the pitch, and, worse yet, they don't know you can't use your hands.
So there is a lot of eye-rolling going on, both ways, and a lot of talk show monologue material, and on talk radio they're having a field day, which is not unusual, where America's self-anointed curators of sport - the drive time sports talk hosts - are suggesting that there's really nothing wrong with soccer that a 24-second clock couldn't fix - and maybe Bobby Knight.
Meanwhile, soccer and the World Cup are subtly teaching the Great Melting Pot about the value of keeping a sport simple and, in some respects, pure. Probably it's because soccer has so many caretakers - from Cameroon to Colombia, from Finland to France - that the sport remains relatively hype- and hassle-free. As the World Cup has shown, soccer games are delightfully void of three factors that routinely make American sports less than enjoyable: 1, Timeouts, 2, TV interruptions, and 3, Coaching disruptions.
The last two minutes of a soccer game take exactly - and this is a novel approach - two minutes to play - versus the half hour it routinely takes to play the last two minutes of any NBA playoff game, or any NFL game, period. Since no timeouts are allowed in soccer, none are ever taken. This also means that it is not possible for games to be interrupted, and disrupted, by TV technicians who stop the games for another 90 seconds of commercials for those watching at home.
A valuable side product of the no-timeout environment is that coaches are not given a public forum to exceed their job descriptions. They cannot take advantage of breaks in the action to glare at the officials, stage tantrums, throw things, and, most importantly, overcoach.
The game helps protect the coaches from themselves, just as it helps protect its own integrity by playing on without starts and stops. The game takes precedence, and not the people playing it.
There are still plenty of stars, and as the sold-out soccer stadiums in America have shown, plenty of fans. Even if they are all from somewhere else.