Is the US finally going World Cup mad?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News, Washington

image captionThere is expectation after the US's dramatic late winner against Algeria

Millions in the US will watch as the national team takes on Ghana in the second round of the World Cup, so has the usually football-ambivalent nation changed its mind?

Football fans are really starting to wonder whether this is finally "it".

The "it" in question is the moment that the US finally embraces football.

There are plenty of clues that World Cup fever is spreading to the US. Go to places like New York or Washington DC and bars have been opening at 0700 to cater for thirsty fans.

In New York, business at bars showing the football has been brisk. Jack Keane, owner of Nevada Smiths, a specialist football bar for 20 years, has been packing them in throughout the tournament.

"The World Cup brings mainstream America into the picture. There are people coming in here who have never watched football before."

There have been big crowds at outdoor screenings. Thousands turned up for the US-England clash at Dupont Circle in the centre of Washington.

And the viewing figures certainly seem to suggest that interest is intensifying.

Ratings gains

For the 40 games shown on the sports network ESPN and ABC, ratings are up 40% on Germany 2006.

image captionLandon Donovan's fame is growing

ESPN got 6.1 million viewers for the crucial US v Algeria clash, the most-watched football match it had ever shown. Not bad for a game that kicked off at 10am for East Coast viewers and 7am for West Coast viewers.

ESPN also claimed to have gained the largest ever audience for a sports event on the web, with 1.1 million people watching that way.

But bald statistics pale in comparison to the evidence of cultural penetration, as the US-Algeria match has provided.

The day after Landon Donovan's stoppage time winner, an image of the joyful moment was on the front page of virtually every major US newspaper.

Days earlier, the US's controversially disallowed winner was discussed on news networks and even became the subject of a skit on the satirical Daily Show.

Poster boy

"The late winner against Algeria has to be considered probably the most significant game in the history of US soccer," says Glenn Davis, who played for the Houston Dynamos in the 1980s and now works for ESPN radio and television.

"What Landon Donovan did the other night, it is elevating him to another status. He is the perfect guy to represent the sport."

image captionRatings have been massively improved and bars have made money

This newfound mainstream celebrity could be seen on the front page of Friday's New York Post. It was entirely covered by a story about Donovan's private life.

Rewind to the 1990s and imagine a picture of John Harkes given the same prominence. It's not easy.

The signs of acceptance are easily visible, agrees Mr Keane.

"ESPN have pumped a fortune into advertising. There are posters on the subway for the World Cup. It's front page news on American tabloids that has never happened before."

ESPN have certainly decided that there's a big potential audience for the World Cup.

They've provided blanket coverage and peppered it with big-name pundits like Jurgen Klinsmann and Ruud Gullit, as well as familiar figures from the English game like Wigan manager Roberto Martinez and former Liverpool and Real Madrid winger Steve McManaman.

Commentary during matches is provided largely by British voices.

US heroics

"There are more eyeballs on it because of the amount of coverage and all the different platforms and media availability," says Davis.

image captionThis man is no longer the best-known face in US football

"The sport continues to grow steadily - I wouldn't say it's growing in huge leaps and bounds."

Stats from the Pew Research Center suggested interest in the US in South Africa was not greatly increased from previous World Cups. It found 11% of Americans said they are following the World Cup very closely, as compared with 8% very closely in 2006 and 10% in 2002.

But this research was released on 17 June, before the US's heroics against Algeria.

And there are regional variations. Pew found interest was higher in the northeast than the south or Midwest, with those interested more likely to be graduates.

ESPN's figures also show a bias. San Diego was the keenest area on the US-Algeria match, with Baltimore, San Francisco, Washington DC, Sacramento, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, New York and West Palm Beach making up the top 10 in ratings.

It's not yet clear if this is a watershed moment, Davis admits. It's been noted that victories over Ghana and Uruguay or South Korea would put the US into the semi-final.

It's also important to distinguish between World Cup fever, fed as it is by European and Latin American expats and immigrants, and the interest in the domestic MLS.

Domestic football is doing well, notes Davis, with big attendances at teams like the Seattle Sounders, but non-Americans have to appreciate it is always likely to be in the shadow of baseball, basketball and American football.

Middle America

It's not clear that a good World Cup will boost MLS attendances, but the great hope in the US is always that the fact that so many young people play the game will one day translate into mass football fandom.

"It is a game of middle America - Mississippi, Nebraska, Idaho," says Davis.

And if football does achieve critical mass in the US, Landon Donovan will be taking some of the credit.

"You can't put a price on that goal," says Mr Keane. "It is a bit like Neil Armstrong on the moon."