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Wendel: Why Americans love soccer now

A capacity crowd of about 750 jam the

A capacity crowd of about 750 jam the Plattduetsche Park Restaurant in Franklin Square to watch the U.S. soccer team play against the Belgians in a July 1, 2013 World Cup match being played in Salvador, Brazil. Credit: Newsday / Portia Crowe

Unbelievably, World Cup soccer has become the topic of conversation around the water cooler at work.

In recent weeks television ratings for the sport have soared, with games involving Team USA equaling the recent NBA finals and surpassing baseball’s World Series. "Watch Parties" drew tens of thousands nationwide and huge crowds at AT&T Stadium in Dallas and Soldier Field in Chicago.

This time around America embraced the "beautiful game" of stunning goals and incomprehensible offsides, joyous nationalism and comic-looking flops due to several key reasons:

Convenient starting times: First-round group games from Brazil began at noon, with another contest to follow and the finale at early evening on the East Coast. They soon became a great reason for an early slide from work.

Short durations: The games take two and a half hours to play. Without timeouts, except for an occasional water break due to the jungle heat, you can set your watch by soccer. Less than three hours to watch a sporting event? That’s been downright delightful and makes you realize what time-vampires baseball, football and even college basketball have become with their commercial breaks and incessant timeout during the stretch.

Shaky goaltenders: With the exception of Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and the USA’s Tim Howard, few keepers demonstrated they could single-handedly steal a game for their side. Any shot became a good shot in Brazil. That’s quite different from hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs, for example, where you sometimes wonder if anybody is going to score.

Upsets galore: After the dust settled in Week One, reigning champion Spain and perennial power England had already been eliminated. That left the door open for such countries as Colombia, Costa Rica, Algeria and Chile to show their stuff.

"USA, USA:" Despite being placed in the same division with such heavyweights as Germany, Ghana and Portugal, the Americans made it out of the so-called "Group of Death" and took Belgium to overtime before being eliminated.

To his credit, American coach Jurgen Klinsmann urged his team to go toe-to-toe with the traditional soccer powers and thanks to scoring star Clint Dempsey and such youngsters as DeAndre Yedlin (20 years old) and Julian Green (19) that often happened.

No more siege mentality for this crew, and that’s a far cry from former American squads in the World Cup.

"We are all very, very proud of this team," Klinsmann said. "They made their country proud with this performance and also their entire performance in this World Cup."

Team USA may be out of this year’s tournament, but it didn’t go quietly into the night. If anything it left the world stage with some attitude, even defiance. That could make all the difference in the years ahead.

For decades, kids in this country, as in the rest of the world, have grown up playing soccer. Drive through suburbia on the weekends, and you’ll see fields upon fields of tykes chasing a speckled ball.

Until now, that’s where the infatuation has ended. Once kid stopped playing the game, they fell into the more traditional viewing habits of college football on Saturdays, the National Football League on Sundays, with a baseball and college basketball game when there was more at stake.

Yet this time around more Americans checked out the World Cup than ever before and they often enjoyed what they saw. For once you give the beautiful game a long look, as the rest of the world knows, it’s difficult to turn away. Especially when you’re cheering a team that refuses to back down.

Tim Wendel is the writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University and the author of 11 books, including "Summer of ’68" and "Castro’s Curveball."