Foon Rhee

Editorial notebook: The other World Cup competition

If you’re like me, you had one eye – OK, both eyes – glued to the TV at the office Thursday morning as the U.S. faced off against Germany in the World Cup.

It was an excruciating couple of hours, especially after Germany took the lead in the second half, to see if we’d escape the “group of death.”

Portugal came to the rescue with a late goal to beat Ghana and ensure that the U.S. would reach a milestone – to make it to the knockout stage in consecutive World Cups for the first time. Cristiano Ronaldo, you’re easily one of the most arrogant people on the planet, but thanks.

There’s no shame in losing 1-0 to Germany, one of the favorites to win the whole thing. Still, it feels strange to celebrate a defeat, to lose and advance.

Especially since, as the U.S. team plays all over Brazil, there’s another competition happening – for the loyalty of sports fans back home.

I’m already sold. I’ve followed soccer as far back as I can remember. When I was 4, my family moved to England. I played in the schoolyard at recess. One of my fondest memories of my late dad is when he took me to a Leeds United match (we won 1-0). A love of the “beautiful game” is something I could share with my nephews, who went to the World Cup in Germany in 2006.

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world – well, everywhere except America.

Every four years during the World Cup, some experts hopefully predict that it will be the tipping point – and naysayers emerge to say soccer is too boring, even somehow un-American.

It’s true that the same reason why it’s more exciting for many fans to watch on TV – continuous play without commercials – also makes it less lucrative than other professional sports. So Major League Soccer will never be as popular as the NFL.

Yet, maybe this time, the soccer frenzy will not be just a passing fever, but will have the staying power to reach the level of other pro sports.

Check the TV ratings. The match Sunday with Portugal drew a record 24.7 million viewers, more than the average for this month’s NBA Finals or the 2013 World Series.

More than 154,000 Americans snapped up tickets to see matches in person, more than any other country except Brazil. At home, there were huge outdoor watching parties Thursday in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., but sadly not Sacramento.

Millions of kids have grown up playing soccer, so perhaps, like other cultural shifts, young people will lead the way. Also, growing numbers of immigrants are coming here from soccer-crazy countries. The U.S. team, itself, is incredibly diverse – one of the great things about it. Its German-born coach recruited five players who were born in Germany, but had American fathers. There are also Mexican Americans, even an Icelandic American.

This team may not be as skilled as the traditional powers, but its scrappiness matches our national character. And it does know drama. There was the late goal to beat arch-nemesis Ghana, then the last-minute goal given up to Portugal for a tie that felt like a defeat. Clint Dempsey very nearly scored in stoppage time Thursday to tie Germany.

Next, this underdog bunch has a tough match Tuesday against Belgium in the round of 16. Let’s all chant together: “I believe that we will win!”