And yet again: The United States is a letdown at the World Cup.
Sure, we made it to the knockout round, finishing first ahead of the Brits in our qualifying group. Sure, we had a couple matches where we displayed last minute heroics, heroics that caused America's bars from Manhattan to Malibu to celebrate in ways that have, heretofore, been reserved only for basketball, baseball, and football. But all things considered, we Americans were, in this Cup, yet again, disappointing.
That said, there is one thing the U.S. takes away from this World Cup that portends only good things. It is something that, in this era of sports -- an era when branding is everything -- might just be the most important thing to ever happen to US soccer: We officially have a superstar, and his name is Landon Donovan.
While Donovan has, for as far back as I can remember, been hailed as U.S. soccer's great hope, he has never, on the world stage, delivered. Being Donovan's age and having grown up playing fairly competitive soccer (nowhere near World Cup level, but I played Division 1 in college), I've been aware of Donovan for at least fifteen years. Until this World Cup, he has never, in my eyes, done anything to warrant the media buzz that seems to have always surrounded him. But in scoring three goals in the Cup, all of which were at critical junctures, he has finally solidified his star status. He's lived up to the hype. And in so doing, he will finally become U.S. soccer's first brand.
And I don't mean that in the sense that he will become America's David Beckham. Instead, I mean he will become U.S. soccer's Michael Jordan.
Just as it took Jordan becoming "Michael Jordan" to change the entire approach to basketball, which ushered the NBA into its glory years in the 80s and 90s and which, ultimately, led to the insanely competitive levels it's at today, Donovan finally becoming "Landon Donovan" will have a similar effect on US soccer. The Nike-driven, Jordan brand changed the way we played basketball in America long before Jordan ever won a championship with the Bulls, just as the Donovan brand will begin changing our nation's approach to soccer, even though we've yet to come close to winning a World Cup. In other words, what the US has been in need of, for quite some time, is a national identity. The best (and only) way to find such an identity is to locate a personality we can rally around, a star with whom we can associate, someone who will help us understand what soccer in the United States is supposed to look like.
Donavan is now that someone. Though the media has been trying to sell him as such for the past eight years, it took this World Cup for him to finally assume the role.
Fittingly, we had Alexi Lalas in the booth providing commentary on Donovan and his successful Cup. I say "fittingly" because Lalas was, just as Julius Erving was before Jordan, the godfather of modern soccer. Without Dr. J there would be no Michael Jordan. Similarly, without Alexi Lalas, there would be no Landon Donovan. Lalas was our first marketable star. And I believe that, as we move forward, our soccer identity becoming clearer and more understandable, it is important that we, in extending the basketball metaphor further, remember the Bob Cousys and Wilt Chamberlains and Pete Maravichs of US soccer: people like Tab Ramos and Paul Caligiuri and Coby Jones, people like Eric Wynalda and Kasey Keller and Claudio Reyna. It was the contribution of players like these -- players only a small section of Americans remember -- who put Landon Donovan on track to become who he is today: the brand that will help define United States soccer for the next twenty-five years.
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