Sunday February 14th, 2016 3:15AM
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Opinion: With every 90 minute session, US Men add to soccer's growth

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
Last night I chewed my finger nails and lost sleep.<br /> <br /> Today I grapple with stomach knots and watch the clock.<br /> <br /> You'd think the Georgia Bulldogs were preparing for a national title shot.<br /> <br /> Nope. It's just the biggest soccer game in United States history.<br /> <br /> I say that not because of what is on the line for the U.S. Men's National Team when they take on Germany at noon Thursday in the World Cup. True, there is a lot on that line, with a win or a tie sending the Americans through to the next round after fighting their way through perhaps the toughest of eight groups in the 32-team tournament. <br /> <br /> I say this is the biggest game ever for the American team because of what the result could mean for the game in the greater sense around this nation.<br /> <br /> And a look around this nation over the past 10 days shows I am far from alone on the emotional roller-coaster.<br /> <br /> The scenes of thousands of red, white and blue-clad fanatics packing parks, pubs, anywhere with a few flat screens -- not to mention the viewing figures from Sunday's 2-2 draw with Portugal -- make it clear that Cup fever has a grip on the nation.<br /> <br /> And with a berth in the round of 16 on the line for the U.S. today, bosses should expect a few long lunch breaks. Some will sanction it -- and even take one themselves.<br /> <br /> That said, this is not a pro-soccer Pollyanna piece. <br /> <br /> Once the U.S. sees its Cup dreams extinguished -- which is a possibility today -- you should expect a radically diminished audience Stateside. And while there are plenty who will watch every last kick -- and, hopefully, no more bites -- of the 2014 tournament, the wave of excitement will fade quickly for just as many more.<br /> <br /> Don't expect to see 20,000 pack into city parks to watch giant video screens of the Major League Soccer championship game in just a few months. <br /> <br /> Like any sustained movement, the advance of a casual sport into nation's pastime takes decades, even centuries -- and soccer has only been really trying as a professional entity in this nation since the 1970s.<br /> <br /> Make no mistake, however, the U.S. Men's National Team (and Women's) and the World Cup, along with numerous soccer entities both at home and abroad, have combined to make their mark on our collective sports psyche. And while soccer -- especially the domestic version -- has not suddenly morphed into a 365-day force to rival the NFL, SEC or MLB, it continues to carve out a widening niche, one that will continue its growth with each year.<br /> <br /> For proof look no further than the flag-waving fanatics that will be on display Thursday. Yes, many are riding a wave of every-four-years national pride (and what American doesn't like to show off when he's up against the rest of the world -- especially as an underdog). But the ebb and flow of pride has flowed increasingly in each of the last six World Cups.<br /> <br /> When the U.S. hosted the 1994 tournament, there were a select few natives in this nation who called themselves soccer fans. But that tournament, and America's relative success in the competition -- reaching the second round only to fall to eventual champs Brazil -- gave birth to a larger support group.<br /> <br /> That group helped usher in the birth of the MLS -- which is enjoying pretty moderate success in its own right 18 years on -- and made it attractive for companies such as ESPN, Fox, and, now, NBC, to show international club soccer. <br /> <br /> That 90s group also endured the guffaws and outright disdain of other sports fans and columnists -- though nothing compared to what soccer supporters in the 70s and 80s endured -- who thought the game either boring due to low scoring (though many of the same people would laud a baseball no-hitter) or the woefully uncreative "un-American!"<br /> <br /> Now, many of those same columnists are covering the World Cup or at least acknowledging its spot on the American sporting calendar. Meanwhile, the dinosaurs screaming their dislike of the game are ignored by the public at large, leaving them to take potshots on message boards -- the kind of places where soccer fans once congregated for companionship.<br /> <br /> Now soccer fans mingle en masse, and even roll a few eyes at the newcomers joining the party -- even if they know the celebrations won't stay this big forever.<br /> <br /> Make no mistake, however, old-school soccer people are loving every minute of this grander adulation, and are looking to swell their ranks again after this World Cup cycle. <br /> <br /> Keep it up and we may yet one day reminisce of a time when soccer was a niche game.<br /> <br /> Fans across this nation will cross those chewed fingers today that the U.S. can keep it up for at least one more 90-minute session during Thursday's showdown with the Germans. Do that and that niche grows wider still.<br /> <br /> <i>-- Morgan Lee is sports editor for Access North</i>
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