Argentina vs. Switzerland, 11:30 a.m., ESPN
Belgium vs. U.S., 3:30 p.m., ESPN
It’s increasingly difficult to find common ground in America these days.
Republicans believe Democrats are destroying our country. Democrats believe Republicans are destroying our country.
And if the internet is any indication, half of NBA fans seem convinced LeBron James is singlehandedly destroying our country.
Even “water-cooler” TV shows have become less and less common as our list of obscure channels continues to expand. Sure, we’ll sit down and watch the Super Bowl together once a year, but even then we’re still divided over who we’d like to see win.
The fact of the matter is, it takes a lot to get Americans united behind a single cause these days.
And that, friends and fellow countrymen, is exactly why the World Cup can be a good thing for America.
After years of largely ignoring soccer, maybe we’ve finally found a place for it in our sports-loving hearts. Maybe the U.S. Men’s National Team can give us something we can all get behind, if only in a small way and for a short amount of time.
The United States’ 2-2 draw with Portugal on June 22 was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history with a record 24.7 million TV viewers.
That mark is almost certain to be broken again if the U.S. defeats Belgium today and advances to face Argentina or Switzerland on Saturday.
Soccer hasn’t had an easy road to popularity in the United States. Our country is famous for forging its own path in just about everything, not the least of which being sports.
We have our NFL, our NBA, our MLB and NASCAR, and we still don’t particularly care if the rest of the world embraces them, even as those leagues attempt to expand their global markets to varying degrees.
Soccer still can’t compete with those sports in the U.S. on a consistent basis, especially when its flagship event only rolls around once every four years.
It has, however, come a long way in America even since the last World Cup.
It’s finally shedding the bad stereotypes that have plagued it for so long in our country, like being considered a weak alternative to American football.
Soccer is now being looked at as more than a starter sport for parents to throw their 6-year-olds into to get exercise and learn the fundamentals of teamwork.
In fact, many of those same kids who grew up playing soccer in the ‘90s are now 20-somethings with a much better understanding of the sport and greater interest in it than previous generations.
It also doesn’t hurt that the 2014 World Cup has several things going for it that have helped make it more appealing to American viewers than its 2010 predecessor in South Africa.
It’s not in some unholy time zone on the other side of the planet.
Scoring has been more plentiful than usual, with apologies to die-hard fans of 0-0 draws.
The rise of social media makes it easy to converse with other fans, regardless of how popular the sport is in your immediate group of friends.
The Americans are winning. ... Sort of. At the very least, the U.S. Men’s National Team has won, lost and tied in a kind of precarious, yet effective-enough blend to get us to this point. And thanks for the assist, Portugal and Ghana.
It’s been a fun ride.
Now, the burden falls on the U.S. team to maintain the momentum.
A tie is no longer an option now that we’ve reached the knockout rounds, and a loss means the end of the road.
It still feels too early, like too much of a shame to see the World Cup momentum in America get derailed at this point.
The good news is that the U.S. survived the so-called “Group of Death” and now enters the knockout rounds about as battle tested as any squad in the tournament.
Furthermore, no clear favorite has emerged. Mexico suffered a shocking loss at the hands of the Netherlands, and both Brazil and Germany barely survived scares in the last few days.
The bad news is that the Americans will likely be underdogs in each matchup the rest of the way.
If American fans’ interest in this World Cup is going to continue to build a while longer, it’s going to require the United States to pull an upset or two.
So, here’s hoping for a lengthy, surprising run by the U.S.
Yes, FIFA is plagued by a borderline-cartoonish level of corruption. Yes, some people will never let go of the idea that soccer is a communist sport.
But at the end of the day, the U.S. Men’s National Team should still be something we can all get behind.
At least, while we still can.
After all, LeBron James is singlehandedly destroying our country.
Jared Putnam is the sports editor for The Times. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/jaredputnam.