When Landon Donovan scored at 90:48 to propel the US to a 1-0 win over Algeria in the final group stage match, giving US the top spot in Group C and advancing them to the Round of 16 against Ghana, it prompted a dramatically emotional response from the entire country.
Count among those Dave “Softy” Mahler, the on-air host from 10-1 weekdays on Sports Radio 950 KJR-AM in Seattle. The always emotional show host has always been known to wear his heart on his sleeve. However, he typically reserves the most dramatic reactions for great moments in Seattle sports, be it with the University of Washington, the Mariners or the Seahawks. This time was different though.
Mahler watched the US-Algeria game on just before he hosted his show on Wednesday, June 23. When Donovan scored, just as England was finishing off a 1-0 win over Slovenia to ensure that the US needed a win to advance, he, like most of the rest of America, went bonkers. Later, during his show, his neighbor called the show from his native South Africa with an odd proposal. Caught up in the moment himself, he told Mahler that he had an extra ticket to the USA-Ghana game.
“There was no part of him at that time that thought I would be able to make it down there,” Mahler said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. It’s been a dream of mine. I’m getting caught up in World Cup fever, especially after Donovan’s goal.’ So I found a trip to Johannesburg through Nigeria for a lot of money and two days later, I’m sitting in Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, watching USA-Ghana.”
Along the way, he met former EPL star Paul Ince, got a great look at the world’s soccer culture in full bloom and watched a memorable, though heart-breaking, match between US and Ghana.
Here was the exact fan that for years US soccer has been looking for. An impassioned 36-year-old sports fan who admittedly was not particularly fond of the sport had his moment. The fact that he is a media member is simply a bonus.
“Once Donovan scored that goal, I jumped on the bandwagon. Obviously getting down there was an unbelievable experience and I’ve been following it a lot since I got home. It was more about going to Africa at first, than about watching the World Cup,” he said.
Donovan’s heroics opened Mahler’s eyes to the game he’d been missing all those years. Now, he says, he can watch the matches with the same appreciation and critical eye that he can for baseball, football and basketball.
“I didn’t really understand the game. But if you slow down and pay attention to the finer points of the game, there’s so much going on that doesn’t show up in the box score. There’s a lot to get frustrated about and a whole lot to get excited about,” said Mahler, a Bellevue native who grew up on Seattle sports. “It’s really an amazing game when you take the time to look at what’s going on beyond scoring.”
He admits that he won’t be setting his alarm for 4:30 on Saturday mornings to watch Premier League matches or giving weekly updates on La Liga on his show, but Mahler has vowed to follow the game more, locally and globally. Most of his out of town viewership, though, will be in preparation for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He wants to see exactly how the US team will be put together in 2014 and who they will be competing against.
While the growing levels of support and increased exposure because of a successful run to the Round or 16 in the 2010 World Cup certainly won’t hurt the American game, he thinks there are still great strides that need to take place for soccer to find a permanent place on talk shows like his.
Two things, he says, need to happen. First, the US must go far in the World Cup - semifinals far.
“A deep run in the World Cup by America would get everyone on board,” Mahler said. “The bottom line is that we get behind American sports. You don’t hear us talking about European soccer or basketball leagues in other countries or cricket. We talk about American sports. If the American World Cup team would make a deep run in the tournament, a lot of people would be forced to jump onto the wagon.”
Second, he adds, is that the US needs a superstar for the fans to get behind.
“You have to have someone to sink your teeth into,” he said. “No disrespect to Landon Donovan or Kasey Keller or anyone else for that matter, but there has never been a guy that has grown up in America and played soccer in America that has made a huge dent on the international level. We need somebody on the level of a Maradona or a Ronaldo or a Messi. We need a David Beckham that can make headlines worldwide. Until we find that guy, I think we’re going to be lagging behind everybody.”
In the meantime, Mahler will be going to more Sounders FC matches. He will be watching the World Cup final Sunday with a more enthusiastic, more educated eye. And he will be ready when the US National Team plays in Brazil in 2014.
The Dave “Softy” Mahler show can be heard from 10-1 weekdays on Sports Radio 950 KJR-AM in Seattle and online at www.950kjr.com.