An estimated 21.6 million people watched Belgium knock out the United States soccer team in the World Cup on U.S. television — an impressive total for a weekday afternoon that almost certainly undercounts how many people actually saw it.
Tuesday’s knockout game exceeded the average viewership for the most recent World Series and NBA Finals, events that took place during prime-time when more people were home to watch.
The Nielsen company said Wednesday that 16.5 million people watched the game on ESPN, with 5.1 million more seeing it on the Spanish-language Univision network. In addition, nearly 1.7 million people watched an online stream of the event, Nielsen said.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Thursday that everyone connected with the soccer team is excited to see how the sport is reaching a U.S. audience. He could see it coming, given the popularity of the game among young people and the large crowds that turned out for the team’s sendoff games before the World Cup.
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“Soccer is breaking through and gets its deserved recognition without taking anything away from the other big American sports,” Klinsmann said.
He said it’s important for people to identify with the way Americans played the game.
“The energy and the commitment and the tempo and the aggressiveness that we played with kind of made people proud at home and surprised a lot of people outside of the United States, maybe in Brazil or in Europe,” he said.
The record U.S. television audience for soccer is the 24.7 million who saw the United States play Portugal on June 24. That game took place on a weekend, however, when there were more people with free time available to watch.
Nielsen does not measure viewership in bars, offices or other public places. In 2010, ESPN estimated that the stated audience size for weekday World Cup games would increase by 23 percent if public viewing were taken into account.
ESPN said that overall viewership for the World Cup is up 44 percent over 2010.
The Americans were eliminated in the round of 16 for the second straight tournament. They’ve been ranked 13th or 14th every month since September, which means their exit was pretty much at the stage it’s expected to be.
“Clearly it gives you the message you have a lot of work still ahead of you,” the U.S. coach said.
His message to players is they don’t do enough. They don’t play twice a week, like Champions League stars. They don’t face condemnation from their community after losses and poor performances.
“It makes them feel accountable, not just walk away with a bad performance and nothing happens,” Klinsmann said. “If you have a bad performance, then people should approach you and tell you that, so make sure that next game is not bad anymore and that you step it up.”
He defended his pre-tournament comment that the U.S. was not ready to win the World Cup, saying he didn’t want to raise “expectations to kind of a level that is over the moon.”
His most controversial moves coming into the tournament were cutting Landon Donovan, the biggest star in U.S. soccer history, and taking along 18-year-old Julian Green, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 21-year-old John Brooks. Brooks and Green, who turned 19 on June 6, responded with late-game goals when they came in as substitutes, and Yedlin was stellar against Belgium when he replaced injured right back Fabian Johnson.
But Klinsmann’s proclamation that the U.S. would play an attacking game didn’t pan out. The Americans were outshot by a combined 92-41.
The team was scheduled to fly back to the U.S. late Wednesday.
Star goalkeeper Tim Howard soon will return to his Premier League club, Everton. Millions of Americans will be rooting for Howard to play in the 2018 World Cup.
“What happens going forward with the national team, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very black and white, to be honest.”
Obama thanks U.S. team
President Barack Obama commended the U.S. men’s soccer team Wednesday for making their country proud in the World Cup tournament in Brazil, during an Oval Office phone call with two of the team’s most celebrated players.
Obama called Howard and team captain Clint Dempsey the day after the U.S. team came tantalizingly close to victory. Obama said this year was the first time the U.S. team had the entire nation truly focused on the contest.
“You guys did us proud,” Obama said. “To see the way you guys captured the hearts and the imaginations of the whole country is unbelievable.”
He joked that Howard, whose 16 saves captivated soccer fans worldwide, will have to shave his beard before returning to the U.S. to evade the mobs enthralled by his performance.