Soccer evangelism: The practice of introducing friends, family, acquaintances, neighbors and that guy down the street you just met to the beautiful game. It's a micro process; a grassroots movement in which fans try to create fans, introducing non-observers to soccer and trying to "hook" them, creating a casual observer at the very least. Sunday was a day for soccer evangelism, but instead of a micro-level, it was done on a national scale with ESPN and its power among sports fans driving the bandwagon.
Here in the United States, a barrier still exists that prevents many from hopping aboard the soccer bandwagon. Pick your excuse, it's been hammered into the ground and used to minimize soccer while shaming its fans. Games are boring; It's for wimps; There's too much diving; Ties are unsatisfying; There's not enough scoring; It's not "American" enough.
If one were to create an advertisement for the game, all they'd have to do is take the eight hours of American soccer broadcast by ESPN on Sunday and hand it to new fans untouched. From the Women's World Cup quarterfinal matchup between Brazil and the USA to the Cascadia Cup matchup between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, with a heart-warming replay of the 1999 Women's World Cup Final in between, ESPN pushed soccer in front of fans, and the teams involved happily provided a quality product.
The Women's World Cup had it all: Drama, heroes, villains, controversy and a heart-stopping finish, all set to the smooth sounds of Ian Darke. By now, we all know what happened. After falling behind almost right away in extra time, the United States was on the brink of elimination. With just seconds to go, a perfect cross found Abby Wambach's head at the back and the USA equalized with the soccer equivalent of a buzzer-beater. Five pure penalty kicks by the American later, with a Hope Solo save in-between, the USA had come all the way back from the brink of elimination to advance to the semifinals of the Women's World Cup.
Solo and Wambach were the heroes, Marta was the villain and the referees provided multiple controversial moments, adding to the mounting drama of Sunday's game. A last-second goal that rivals the same feat pulled-off by Landon Donovan in last year's World Cup gave the USA its moment, captivating fans drawn in by a game that steadily built momentum. Tremendous individual performances by Solo and the five American kick takers during the penalty shootout put faces on the largely anonymous US Women's National Team, providing a human element.
This was soccer at its finest, the beautiful game played on the biggest stage in women's soccer, and soccer as a whole, in front of a raucous crowd in Germany and broadcast for the world to see. It was a chance for new viewers to fall in love and long-time fans to fall in love all over again. And instead of letting it stand on its own, ESPN had a full slate of soccer coverage planned, capped by our own Northwest rivarly: The Cascadia Cup.
There's no comparing the Women's World Cup matchup to the Cascadia Cup, in terms of drama, what was at stake or even the level of play. But if the US Women's National Team provided the moment for viewers, the Timbers and Sounders provided a glimpse of the future of professional soccer in America. The environment was superb, the play was spirited and the second half provided non-stop action and drama.
Think soccer is boring, without enough goals to satisfy short attention spans? The two Cascadia teams combined to score five second half goals. It wasn't quite a walk-off win, but Osvaldo Alonso stepped up to the spot in the 83rd minute and buried a penalty kick to put the Sounders on top, 3-2. Despite a late-push to equalize, Portland fell in the all-important Cascadia Cup match. And while the result matters here in the Northwest, the show put on by both teams and the crowd provided a lasting memory of the spirited derby for those watching at home.
Sunday was eight hours of American soccer coverage on a network that bills itself as the worldwide leader. It was a carefully planned package that served as a superb advertisement for soccer in American and as a whole. ESPN set the table, gave soccer the floor and exposed it to the nation. The participants involved -- the USA, Brazil, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders -- took the ball and ran with it, giving fans a show while putting their best foot forward.
Soccer is here, and gaining momentum in the United States. Though it will likely never be on the same level as professional basketball, baseball or football, it does have a future in America. Get past the stigmas associated with the game and take it in with an open mind. Re-watch the action from Sunday -- ESPN3.com has both games archived -- and breathe in the game, the sights, the sounds, the environment and the drama.
Forget the preconceived notions of soccer. Like any sport, it'll have its ups and downs, good games and bad. When a day like Sunday comes along, you won't want to be sitting on the sidelines, unable to get past stereotypes that largely remain untrue.