On Monday, Hank Steinbrecher was at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, waiting on standby for a flight home from a business trip, stuck at the gate, when a middle-aged woman sat down next to him.
"She opens her purse, pulls out her Apple (iPad) and starts downstreaming the Mexico game," the Glen Ellyn resident said of Mexico's 3-1 win over Croatia in the World Cup. "This lady next to me, who is like everybody's mom, she turns out to be this huge fan. She knows everything and studies it. So we're sitting there and watching the game together.
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"Now could that have happened in 1990? Could that have happened in the 1974 World Cup?" he asked rhetorically, discounting technological advances. "Absolutely not. But today, in the Atlanta airport, the lady sitting next me, is right there. It's incredible."
Steinbrecher has lived through soccer's evolution in this country. As a player, a coach, as the secretary general of U.S. Soccer for 10 years, and now as a businessman, he's seen it grow from barely a blip on anyone's radar to where there are 20,000 fans jammed into Grant Park to watch U.S. World Cup matches on giant TV screens, with the U.S. Soccer logo on hats and T-shirts everywhere.
Fans will reconvene again today (10 a.m. ESPN) when the United States plays Germany in their third and final Group G match, each team hoping to secure one of two berths in the tournament's next round.
When Steinbrecher, a National Soccer Hall of Fame member, talks about this World Cup being "a tipping point for U.S. Soccer," this is what he means.
"The whole landscape of soccer has changed," Steinbrecher said. "I mean literally you go to games, and I've coached many games, you have two or three people show up. My first game in 1990 with U.S. Soccer was against Mexico at the L.A. Coliseum, and there were only 5,000 people who attended. Five reporters, because Mexico only brought their third team. When they announced who they were bringing, the Mexicans didn't want to go see them. That's how bad our reputation was. And now if we play Mexico in the L.A. Coliseum, it's 95,000 with 5,000 reporters and an overflow crowd on the outside where you have to have big-screen TVs. The whole thing has changed."
For someone like Steinbrecher, who has spent a lifetime in the game, how Americans have embraced this year's World Cup and this year's United States team is amazing to see.
"I'm a citizen of the world," Steinbrecher said. "I've been around the world. I've been in soccer games everywhere. (Grant Park) is equal to or better than any place I've ever been. You go to a fan fest in Germany during the German World Cup, and it was not better than Grant Park the other day. It blows me away to see what happened."
ESPN is reporting record soccer television ratings, even ratings exceeding the NBA Finals and World Series. That's good, but it doesn't tell the whole story, said Steinbrecher, who helped to stage successful World Cups in 1994 for the men and 1999 for the women.
"What your overnight ratings don't show you is what's happening in every bar in America," he said. "Barkeepers are making an enormous amount of money off of this World Cup. And it's not showing what's happening in Grant Park, those overnight ratings. … America's got that fever."
The question now is what happens to American soccer when the United States' World Cup run ends, either Thursday or sometime in the knockout rounds? What happens when this World Cup ends?
"Let's see if this can continue," he said. "Our league (Major League Soccer) is going to get better. Our league has gotten a lot better. I'll make an argument we're in the top 7-10 leagues in the world. And it's getting better and getting a lot better. Let's see if it translates into everyday league stuff."
In other words, the true test of the game's growth will be if an MLS team such as the Chicago Fire can build on this, filling Toyota Park on a regular basis and increasing the league's TV ratings.
That's for someone else to worry about. Steinbrecher is just enjoying the moment.
"My heart sings when I see what's happening here," he said, "just sings."
• Follow Orrin's soccer reports on Twitter@Orrin_Schwarz.