FRANKFURT – As we tie red, white and blue ribbons in our hair, paint the American flag on our cheeks and get ready to root, root, root for the good ol' U-S-of-A, there's only one thing that can ruin the experience of an important soccer game on the world stage:
Every few years, the rest of us dance this dance with them, and they just can't seem to get out of our way, or their own. They won't let us enjoy this Women's World Cup final for what it is -- a fun, unique moment of sporting nationalism -- without turning it into a cause.
For soccer fans, this is part of something bigger, a chapter in their endless quest for validation, a seminal moment in their constant attempt to guilt the rest of the country into liking a sport it usually treats with ambivalence.
But as the U.S. battles Japan on Sunday with the Women's World Cup at stake, let's vow not to let it happen. Not this time.
No matter what the television ratings say, no matter how packed the sports bars get early Sunday afternoon, and no matter how overwhelmed your Twitter feed becomes with Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, this is not a referendum on our country's interest in the sport. It doesn't matter what Americans think about soccer tomorrow or even next year. For once, let's just sit back and watch a fun, spunky team that has captured our attention and our hearts.
That's all it is. And that's all it has to be.
One of the great things about our country, as divisive and flawed as it can be, is that Americans will get behind anything American in the international field of sports. We didn't care if Michael Phelps was a Republican or a Democrat; we just knew that he was a kick-butt swimmer. More importantly, he was our kick-butt swimmer. So we watched every race on his way to eight gold medals in 2008, riveted by his pursuit of history.
And even though we do this every couple of years during the Olympics -- make obscure athletes into superstars, then forget about them five minutes after the closing ceremonies -- significant soccer events always inspire a more contentious debate.
Soccer is indeed the world's most popular spectator sport, but it's not all that big of a deal here, and a lot of people have a hard time reconciling that.
In the U.S., being a soccer fan is equal parts liking the sport and lecturing everyone else on what they're missing.
So whenever there's a story that generates some national interest, whether it's Brandi Chastain becoming a cultural phenomenon in 1999 or the U.S. men's team making the CONCACAF Gold Cup final last month, the inferiority complex of the American soccer zealot comes to the surface, proclaiming it the moment our country will finally "get" what the rest of the world is so passionate about.
Of course, that won't be any more accurate today than it was last year or the year before that or the year before that. But so what?
Sports are entertainment, and what entertains people is rarely universal. I have no enduring interest in Japanese game shows, Bollywood movies or Danish pop because each of them is driven by a set of cultural reference points that are totally different than mine. But when the moment and motivation is right, any of those things can hold my interest for a period of time. America's relationship with soccer is much the same.
Sure, our community is more global now than ever, and it seems to matter less and less where people come from. You know it's not 1980 anymore when hockey's most magnetic star is Russian and a German becomes the standard-bearer for all that's right with the NBA.
But when it comes to competition on an international stage, interest is always fueled by America's chance for success. Heck, Andy Roddick wouldn't be relevant at all at the Grand Slams anymore if he didn't happen to be the most relevant American in men's tennis.
For the majority of those who tune in Sunday, the Women's World Cup won't be a sporting event, but rather a happening. They won't watch it through the prism of what it means for the sport of soccer, but rather for their own joy and patriotism.
And once it's over, it's over. America's attitude about the sport won't be much different going forward than it was before the Women's World Cup started.
Soccer has a vibrant place in our sports landscape from youth leagues to the millions of fans who gather in stateside pubs to watch the UEFA Champions League from half a world away. It has a dedicated niche following that cares so deeply about the sport it keeps the nearly invisible MLS in business. And every now and then, it produces a national team that demands the rest of us pay attention, at least for a little while.
We can all agree on the inherent drama of an American team playing for its sport's biggest stakes. Just leave it at that, and just win, baby.