By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

I think they're coming on to me. You, too. All of us, really. American soccer players Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley look out from the cover of a recent Sports Illustrated, countenances as serious as their receding hairlines, index fingers locked and loaded. U.S. SOCCER WANTS YOU, reads the caption. ARE YOU WITH THEM?

To which I say: not so much.

Don't get me wrong. It's always nice to be wanted, even if the decidedly blunt pickup line in question is less Abelard to Heloise than a beer-laden plea of nice shoes ... wanna ...? And understand: I'm not one of those "Soccer is dull, no one scores, everyone dives, bah humbug, can't wait for NFL training camp" sports scribes.

To the contrary, I detest training camp. And I like the World Cup. I have nothing against the beautiful game as played by the planet's most artful practitioners. I dig the chanting, the drinking, the hooliganism, the drinking. I enjoy homegrown sports, too. But I'm not so enraptured by Roger Clemens' umpteenth comeback -- which, I believe, has its own ESPN network -- that I can't distinguish the Seal Dribble from the Cruyff Turn, chubby Ronaldo from ponytailed Ronaldinho, Ronaldo's supermodel girlfriend steadfastly refusing to pose nude from Ronaldo's supermodel girlfriend vamping along the catwalk in what appears to be a torn handkerchief held in place by fishing wire.

In short, I get it. I completely understand the fierce passion and manic obsession that comes with pulling for one's national side, the sheer giddy desperate insanity that left Frankfurt riot police separating English and German fans on the Cup's opening day, never mind that the two teams were neither playing each other nor staying in the same city. Futbol is life; the rest is just the small-print warranty card no one bothers to fill out.

Of course, that's exactly why I'm keeping my fandom casual.

Ease up, Mr. Donovan. Slow down, Mr. Beasley. I don't want a serious rooting relationship. I'm not ready for a serious rooting relationship. Sure, mine eyes, er, saw the glory at the 2002 Cup. But that was a one-month stand, an American run to the quarterfinals and scrambled eggs in the morning. True sports zealotry is more akin to being married with children: rewarding and enriching, but also a long, hard slog rife with sacrifice and disappointment. Being a genuine fan takes physical effort and spiritual investment. You have to sweat the details, care about quadriceps strains and how third-teamers look in practice. You have to shell out for the latest jerseys -- home, away and alternate. You have to surrender a little piece of your free will, don your lucky Stars 'n' Stripes boxers and embrace superstition, like the way Ecuador dispatched an honest-to-goodness shaman to spiritually cleanse every Cup venue in Germany.

(Ecuador, it should be noted, won its opening match against favored Poland. Perhaps Pat Riley should try something similar, the better to exorcise the ghost of Stan Van Gundy. Out, dammed spot!)

Beyond voodoo, die-hard fandom requires entrusting one's entire emotional well-being to the hands, feet and all-too-fragile metatarsals of athletes you don't know and will never, ever meet. More often than not, they let you down. Such is the nature of sports. Winning a championship is rare. Boston Red Sox fans know this. Duke fans know this. German fans know this, so much so that in a recent survey, only 7 percent picked the Cup hosts to win the tournament.

In England, soccer fan Paul Hucker reportedly took out an insurance policy that pays a million pounds if medical experts conclude he has suffered psychological trauma because of an early English tournament exit. Wasted money? Perhaps. But in 2005, I watched my beloved Arizona Wildcats blow a 14-point, late-game lead against Illinois with a Final Four berth on the line. I cursed myself hoarse, couldn't speak for two days.

In light of England's desultory opener against Paraguay -- and Wayne Rooney's ongoing foot issues -- I think Hucker might collect his jackpot.

Back to Team USA. Is it worth the trouble? Probably not. For one, the Yanquis are the CONCACAF equivalent of the New York Yankees, hated throughout the hemisphere. From Mexico City to El Salvador, American players routinely are greeted with chucked D-cells, bags of urine and chants of "Osama bin Laden!" According to ESPN.com's Wayne Drehs, former defender Paul Caligiuri once was treated for welts on his back after being sprayed with a chemical substance, presumably acid.

Look, I don't need to support a team everyone else favors. That said, I have no idea what melting flesh smells like, especially my own. And I'm not in a hurry to find out. Besides, the United States already is despised for its current foreign policy. Imagine the worldwide loathing if we win the Cup. Cheering for the Red, White and Blue will be like wearing a Limp Bizkit T-shirt or dating O.J. Simpson. Bad for your image, if not your health.

Then again, odds are against an American victory. Which is a problem all its own. Our inflated No. 5 world ranking aside, Team USA is decidedly average, better than lousy but hardly Brazil. Monday, I stopped by a local bar to watch the U.S.-Czech Republic opener. Before I could get in the door, Team USA had given up a goal. Yipes. A repeat run to the Cup quarterfinals is unlikely; advancing out of group play would now be a triumph. As for reaching the finals? USA Basketball can't make it to the Olympic gold medal game. Are we a soccer nation?

As a laissez-faire fan, I can accept mediocrity. Anything the Americans accomplish is gravy; anything they fail to manage is a shruggable non-offense. Go hard-core, on the other hand, and suddenly I'll be spewing self-delusional ifs: If Team USA can take advantage of a distracted, scandal-plagued Italian squad, if it doesn't overlook Ghana, if the Czechs are disqualified for inspiring one too many chess-related headline puns, then maybe, just maybe, the Americans can draw Brazil in the knockout round. Ronaldo's still fat, right?

Trust me: This way lies madness. Just ask a New York Jets fan.

Being a committed supporter also takes time. Time I can't spare. As rooting goes, I'm already in the tank for a half-dozen other interests: Roger Federer, the aforementioned Wildcats, the Washington Wizards, whoever is playing the Redskins this week, Fidel Castro in a celebrity death pool. Each relationship needs care and feeding. When Maryland beats Duke in NCAA basketball -- or vice versa -- I know the drill. Burn a box spring in College Park. Do I really want to do the same when the United States tops Trinidad and Tobago? Mattresses aren't exactly cheap.

Worse still, being an American superfan means paying attention to MLS. No, no, a thousand times no. Remember what I said about having nothing against the beautiful game as played by the world's most artistic practitioners? Real Salt Lake versus Chivas USA doesn't qualify.

Groucho Marx famously noted that he wouldn't join any club that would have him as a member. When it comes to U.S. soccer fandom, the same dictum applies. Honestly, there's no shame in being a casual Cup backer, jumping on and off the national team bandwagon. We do the same thing during the Olympics. We do it every time a horse wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown. We did it with Hootie and the Blowfish. Care today, couldn't care less in a month. So it goes.

U.S. Soccer wants me. Am I with them? I suppose. But hold off on the wedding bands. Let's keep it casual. Donovan and the gang just don't want to be alone for the next few weeks. Neither do I. We have the Cup. Who needs tomorrow?

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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U.S. SOCCER WANTS YOU