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James Edward: ESPN hype tunes fans in to soccer

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

A lot is being made this week about the promising strides from the U.S. National Team at the Confederations Cup. I have mixed feelings about this praise — after all it took a miracle to get out of group play — and ultimately believe ESPN is the entity that will benefit most from the U.S. performance in the 2010 World Cup.

For one week at least, three improbable performances by the United States had casual sports fans talking about soccer. These fans don't usually care about soccer, but when the Stars and Stripes are slapped on a soccer jersey and that team is heralded for its triumphant upset victory, suddenly those fans are interested. It doesn't hurt that ESPN has a vested interest either.

None of this is a bad thing. Soccer's growth in this country can only benefit from more ESPN coverage, and last week was the perfect storm.

Casual sports fans probably didn't even know about the Confederations Cup until they learned of the U.S. National Team's one-in-a-thousand advancement out of group play. This was no "Miracle on Ice," but it stirred the American pride.

Next up was the No. 1 team in the world. The importance of this simple ranking cannot be overstated. Realistically, the FIFA rankings are as worthless as the preseason college football top 25, but Americans love rankings. It's why college football is so unbelievably popular in this country, and why the BCS is always one of the hottest topics in December and January.

If the ESPN machine hypes a game between the United States and the No. 1 team in the world, people will pay attention.

Without Spain's No. 1 ranking, the United States' 2-0 victory over the Spaniards last Wednesday would never have been the lead story on ESPN's Sportscenter. The upset though enabled ESPN to put its summer interns to work for a historical spin by labeling it one of greatest upsets ever.

We Americans sure love an underdog story, especially when we're the underdog.

No one was loving the upset more than ESPN. The network is shameless at times, and heading into last Sunday's Confederations Cup final between the United States and Brazil nothing was more important on the ESPN radar than soccer.

Casual sports fans around the country couldn't help but tune in. Our team was a huge underdog in a championship game against mighty Brazil.

It would've been great had the United States held on to its shocking 2-0 lead instead of losing 3-2, but at that point it didn't really matter. Impressions had already been made, and the match was the most-watched, non-World Cup telecast in U.S. National Team history.

Now, next summer when ESPN begins hyping the World Cup, those same fans will be saying "oh yeah, remember last summer when we beat Spain and almost beat Brazil?" They'll once again be inclined to tune in, and ESPN's World Cup ratings will be through the roof.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com

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