Late-game heroics may be tough on fans, but they’re sparking unprecedented interest

By Nancy Armour, AP
Friday, June 25, 2010

‘Cardiac kids’ proving to be big winners back home

SANDHURST, South Africa — All these late-game heroics are doing a number on U.S. fans — not to mention a few of the players.

The more the Americans make everybody sweat at the World Cup, though, the better it is for the game back home.

“We knew it was going to have more hype than ever before,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said Thursday. “But I don’t think any of us predicted what the watercooler talk is.”

Landon Donovan’s injury-time goal Wednesday with the Americans on the brink of elimination brought shouts and sobs of joy in bars, restaurants and office cubicles form coast to coast. Raucous cheers erupted on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and even in White House auditoriums in Washington, D.C.

The game drew the highest rating ever for soccer on ESPN with over 6 million people watching. Another huge audience is expected for Saturday’s second-round game against Ghana, which starts at 2:30 p.m. EDT on ABC. Players have been flooded with congratulatory text messages, e-mails and posts on Facebook. When goalkeeper Tim Howard got back to the team hotel and turned on the television, he saw New York Mets’ third baseman David Wright — in a Donovan jersey.

Even Spike Lee, the arbiter of all things hip, sent Gulati a congratulatory e-mail.

“It would be cool to be somewhere in some bar hanging out and experiencing it,” Donovan said Thursday. “(But) I’m going to choose this over that.”

Much like the Olympics, the World Cup tends to attract some casual fans and those who will get behind any team wearing U-S-A on its chest. But their interest is often fleeting, and they tend to fade until the next World Cup rolls around.

“I don’t think that’s what this is,” Gulati said.

That doesn’t mean ratings for Major League Soccer will suddenly skyrocket, Gulati said. Or that the U.S. team will draw Los Angeles Lakers-like love the next time it plays at home.

“But I think we’ve turned some people on to the game, for sure,” Gulati said.

How could the Americans not, what with them creating more drama than the latest “Twilight” release?

Donovan’s goal that gave the United States a 1-0 win and sent the Americans to the round of 16 was, without question, the most dramatic of the team’s finishes. But scoring late has become something of a U.S. trademark, and fans don’t dare take their eyes off the TV sets in the waning minutes of the game for fear they’ll miss all the action.

Howard saved shot after shot in the closing minutes of that first group-stage game against England. Against Slovenia, Michael Bradley tied the game in the 82nd minute. Three minutes later, Maurice Edu had the now infamous goal that wasn’t.

And that’s not all. In World Cup qualifying, Bradley’s 90th-minute goal finished a 2-0 win over Mexico; Jozy Altidore and Frankie Hejduk each scored in the last 15 minutes to gain a 2-2 tie at El Salvador; and, Jonathan Bornstein’s injury-time goal tied Costa Rica 2-2, knocking Los Ticos out of the World Cup and putting Honduras in.

Ghana is up next on Saturday, and who knows what the U.S. will have in store.

“We’ve definitely won a boring game” before, Altidore said. “Actually, we would love to get back to that and win a very uneventful game.”

The Americans have advanced to the quarterfinals only once since the first World Cup in 1930. They beat bitter rival Mexico 2-0 eight years ago, then were eliminated with a 1-0 defeat to Germany.

Many fans are already looking ahead to the quarters, where the United States would face either Uruguay or South Korea. But Ghana is the team that knocked the United States out in the group stage four years ago.

“We’ve always said, ‘Get out of our group and then go from there,’” Donovan said. “Now we feel like I’ve always said, that we can compete with and beat every team in the world. Saturday happens to be Ghana, and we’re going to throw everything we can at them.”

The folks back home should consider themselves warned.

AP Sports Writers Ronald Blum and Chris Jenkins contributed to this report.

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