The U.S. misses the World Cup, and maybe it needed to happen

Brought low: U.S. keeper Tim Howard. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

In extra time of the 1966 World Cup final, Tofiq Bahramov – known to history as “The Russian Linesman,” though he was Azerbaijani – signaled that Geoff Hurst’s shot off the crossbar had landed behind the West German goal line. The Germans disputed it then, now and forever. A story, perhaps apocryphal, holds that Bahramov was asked on his deathbed how he knew the goal was good. “Stalingrad,” he said.

If not for Hurst’s winner, the nation that invented the sport would still be seeking its first major soccer triumph. (As is, England has gone only the past 61 years without doing much of anything.) File this truism under “D,” for “Duh”: In soccer, goals change games. Sometimes a goal changes much more.

In the span of two hours Tuesday night, four goals changed everything for U.S. soccer. Against Trinidad and Tobago, Omar Gonzalez deflected a shot past Tim Howard, the own goal putting the Americans in a hole from which they couldn’t recover. Also: Romell Quioto, who plays for Houston of the MLS, beat Mexico’s offside trap to give Honduras a 3-2 lead. Also: Panama’s Roman Torres, who plays for Seattle of the MLS, scored in the 88th minute to beat Costa Rica 2-1. Also: Panama’s first goal never crossed the line. Shades of Stalingrad.

Take away any of the above, and the U.S. is headed for Russia and the 2018 World Cup and our sudden outrage over the world’s richest nation being terrible at the world’s most popular sport would never have been triggered. (Sample reaction: Iceland, the population of which is less than half of Cobb County’s, is going … but WE’RE NOT!) Such is the power of goals. But there’s a greater truth here, one which wouldn’t have come to light if not for Tuesday’s doings.

As much as we like to congratulate ourselves as to how far U.S. soccer has come, it hasn’t come all that far. The U.S. women have won three of seven World Cups, the most recent included. The U.S. men are still living off a quarterfinal run in 2002 that ended in a 1-nil loss to Germany that featured an apparent hand ball against Torsten Frings on the goal line. (Hugh Webb, the Scottish ref, saw nothing untoward. Yorktown, maybe?)

That near-miss convinced many among us that U.S. soccer, which was coming off a last-place finish in the 1998 World Cup in France,  could play with the biggest of the big. That notion held even as our national team was ousted from the next two World Cups by Ghana. Three years ago, the Ghanaians at last overcome, the U.S. reached the round of 16 and took more gifted Belgium to extra time, losing 2-1. Yet again, we took such a loss as a positive. Yet again, we were fooled.

The Belgians could have won 5-0 had not goalkeeper Tim Howard stood, as they say in hockey, on his head. He made 16 saves, a World Cup record. The U.S. barely created a clear chance until it trailed by two goals, whereupon desperation took hold. Only on the scoreboard were the Americans anywhere close to Belgium, which is another part of soccer. Results can flatter. Results can deceive.

The best-ever U.S. soccer player is Landon Donovan, who’s the career leader in MLS goals with 145 in 340 appearances. This will sound cruel, but there aren’t many European or South American nations for which Donovan would rank among the all-time top five. He played 30 games for European clubs Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton; he scored two goals.

The next World Cup will mark the U.S. team’s first absence since 1986. We were hosts in 1994 – lost to champs-to-be Brazil 1-nil in the round of 16 – and should be again in 2026. MLS, which once occupied the thinnest of niches in our sporting landscape, has grown to 22 teams and just saw expansion Atlanta United play to a crowd of 70,425 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The average American under age 25 is more familiar with Lionel Messi, an Argentinian who plays for a team in Spain, than with Mike Trout, who’s from New Jersey and who plays baseball in Anaheim.

We as a nation are no longer unfamiliar with The Beautiful Game, but we aren’t yet very good at it. Back to Belgium: The best players on Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea – the current top three clubs in the gargantuan English Premier League – hail from a nation with a population smaller than Chicago’s.

The U.S. hasn’t stopped producing world-class athletes. Tom Brady, LeBron James and the aforementioned Trout are among the greatest ever in their respective sports. Alas, our best athletes still don’t gravitate toward soccer. The Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, who undid the U.S. in extra time three years ago, is considered the fastest big man in his sport. He’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 221 pounds. Now imagine LeBron – he’s 6-8, 250 – on a soccer pitch.

For all of U.S. soccer’s advances in training, coaching and awareness, there remains the circle that cannot be squared: An American male knows that if he grows up to play in MLB, the NBA or the NFL, he’ll be playing at his sport’s highest level; to play in one of the world’s best soccer leagues, he’ll have to go to Europe. Jurgen Klinsmann, the German who coached the U.S. national team from 2011 through 2016, advocated that his men go across the pond to better themselves. Some Americans resented that approach. Klinsmann was dismissed last fall after losses in World Cup qualifiers to Mexico and Costa Rica. Eleven months later, here the U.S. sits, outside looking in for the first time in 31 years.

Six teams competed in the final CONCACAF hexagon. The top three – Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama – qualified for Russia. Fourth-place Honduras faces a two-leg play-in against Australia. The U.S. didn’t have to win the group to keep going. Fourth out of sixth would have sufficed. It finished fifth, ahead only of Trinidad and Tobago, which was playing for nothing Tuesday night. The Americans didn’t need to win that match to advance; they only had to keep from losing. They lost.

Yes, it was embarrassing. (As Andrew Joseph of USA Today tweeted, “It’s like an entire nation blew a 28-3 lead.”) It was also the slap of reality. Simply qualifying for seven consecutive World Cups shouldn’t have been that big a deal, given that the only CONCACAF nation of soccer worth is Mexico, itself a serial underachiever. Over those seven World Cups, the U.S. rarely reached the point where it could line up against a major power and take the fight to the opponent. Usually it felt compelled to take a defensive posture and soak up pressure, which runs contrary to gung-ho American nature.

Therein was a tacit concession: Even those coaching the U.S. believed that, skill-wise, our lads simply didn’t match up. It wasn’t that the team was incapable of hanging in against one of the Euro biggies – the Americans drew with eventual champ Italy in 2006; they beat Portugal in 2002 and should have beaten it again in 2014 – but every such performance bore the whiff of a gritty underdog shackling a superior foe. The point being: Even at our soccer best, we’re still underdogs.

Of the top nine scorers in MLS, none was born in America. Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old who scored against T&T, has seven goals in 45 appearances over three seasons for Borussia Dortmund, but he’s one guy. The U.S. team failed to qualify for the past two Olympics, which now seems prophetic. Whatever seemed to be working for U.S. soccer just jumped the rails.

Which means it’s time to recalibrate. Tiny Iceland, which famously beat England in Euro 2016, has risen to soccer prominence by building indoor arenas – it’s cold and dark up there – and having one UEFA-licensed coach per every 825 residents. After finishing last in its group in Euro 2000, proud Germany launched its Extended Talent Promotion Program and threw bags of money at the problem. Today the Germans are reigning World Cup champs. Even as we admit that a massive rethink is needed, we concede that rethinking mightn’t be enough.

Soccer is bigger in the U.S. than it has ever been, but it’s still not as big as in most corners of our world. This nation doesn’t stop for a World Cup qualifier. Indeed, the T&T match didn’t have a major U.S. television carrier. (It aired on BeIn Sports and NBC Universo.) In Argentina, where the national team also faced elimination Tuesday, U2 delayed its Buenos Aires concert until after Messi notched his hat trick against Ecuador. Even Bono, never renowned for humility, knows his place on Planet Futbol.

Reader Comments 0

24 comments
Gloria_
Gloria_

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TruthReallyHurts
TruthReallyHurts

Nice job, Mark. Here's your answer:

USA Soccer needs to invest in the inner city and urban suburbs (south Fulton, south DeKalb, Clayton). 

Start quality soccer programs for kids in preK and the primary grades. Build quality soccer facilities (like the one in south Fulton off of Camp Creek Parkway) and win over the parents/guardians who in many cases are single moms and grandparents. You win them over with the quality facilities, uniforms and coaching, but also with GED programs and job skill training programs. 

At the same time, continue to show them how soccer can provide a viable opportunity for their sons to build a better life, whether that means a college scholarship or a pro career in MLS or one of the European leagues. Along the way provide field trips for the players and their caregivers to MLS games and high-level college soccer games (NCAA semi finals and finals). 

You won't win over every kid from football and basketball, but if you do it right you will win over a good number of them. Right now, our best athletes are playing football, baseball or basketball. Thus you have guys like Bradley, Gonzales (nice players, not talented enough) and Altadore (looks the part, plays with zero heart) trying to compete against the likes of Messi and Reynaldo. Do it right and you will have tapped into a pool of the caliber of high-level athletes you need to compete with the top countries in the world. These kids are athletic and hungry. Coach them up from the early youth level, instill a love for the game, show them how soccer can change their lives and help them see the country and the world, and put money in their pockets and you will make USA Soccer competitive on the world stage. 

You're welcome.


Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@TruthReallyHurts The US is a country with over 300 million people and the USMNT can not find 25 players to field a team to qualify for the World Cup. Haven't the powers at the USSF been pushing their sport through youth academies for at least the last 10 years, It may be more of an issue of how the 25 players are chosen, not that 25 world class US players cannot be found.

_Allison.
_Allison.

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Tallcarl
Tallcarl

Mark, For the last 10 years I have lived in Europe and Colombia. When Colombia played the other day the schools were closed. When the game is here in Barranquilla, Colombia as it often is.... well FORGET ABOUT IT all things are close.I was in Parque Major in the center of Madrid after they won the world cup and it got so crazy I rushed into my friends apartment to watch Spanish TV as they smashed all the car in the block. Everything was closed the next day to recover.

TaxiSmith
TaxiSmith

Gee, how will I ever sleep tonight?

Boses
Boses

Today's paper edition of the AJC doesn't even mention last night's game.  There you go. 

Allenman
Allenman

Great column, Mark.  One of your best ever.  I enjoyed every word.  Congratulations . . . and Go Atlanta United . . . maybe we'll get there one day.

Carterev
Carterev

Congratulations, Mark. This is the finest column on soccer that I have read in the AJC. Since the top 20 football teams in Europe are worth considerably more than their top 20 NFL counterparts (although the Cowboys are the most valuable team), American indifference to soccer may not last long. 


USA lacks the scoring forwards to consistently win against the top European and South American sides.  In most of the countries on these continents, players are identified as young as twelve, to be sent to academies run by the top clubs, where they are trained and evaluated for future professional careers.  The best scorers combine technical ball skills; physical qualities of strength, size, agility and speed that you don't see in MLS; and anticipation of play that can't be learned without playing with top players from early teens.  For the foreseeable future our best players will have to train in the academies as well.


Iceland attempts to copy the professional academy experience with international quality coaching and training throughout their public youth club network.  Their players have great touch and technical skill with the ball, and are disciplined in executing their team concepts.  While strong on set plays, they will not run past or through top international defenders.  They afford the best model for the US to adopt, given the broad choice of other sports on offer for top US athletes.


Luis Suarez and Neymar became dominant players after starting the game on the streets and alleys where they grew up, where they learned the physical skills and tricks to outplay bigger, stronger, older opponents.  We see this dynamic in the US in basketball, baseball and football, but not yet soccer, which is mostly played in an organized environment.


I tend to think American football cornerbacks, running backs and lanky receivers; basketball guards and small forwards; and baseball centerfielders and shortstops would translate best to world class soccer.


If MLS teams continue to draw well in larger venues, money and sponsorship should allow for the attraction of international stars in their prime, which will improve our domestic players.

jlrhoya
jlrhoya

Soccer - you barely use your hands in it, half the players stand around while the other half kick on the other side of the field, one player gets most of the goals on the team, and nobody but skinny guys can endure all the running.


But moms enjoy it because it appears to not be dangerous.

LowSage
LowSage

no big deal---99.99% of americans could not care less about soccer---football and basketball is all they watch. Even baseball is no longer popular.

Tallcarl
Tallcarl

@LowSage Wrong, pro-basketball is dying a high profile and splashy death. Many middle class Americans can't tell you who who the NBA championship last year and watch it, nope we are turned off by the whole Gangsta league.

TruthReallyHurts
TruthReallyHurts

@Tallcarl @LowSage Dumbest post of the day. NBA ratings have been up the past three seasons. The league has a dominant team in Golden State that plays a fun style everyone loves and likeable stars (Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LaBron, etc.) who are extraordinary athletes and play hard and with great heart when it counts (post season) ... or in other words, the exact opposite of Team USA soccer. No dynamic athletes (except for the Pelisic kid), no heart.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@TruthReallyHurts @Tallcarl @LowSage NBA ratings for national broadcasts were down 9% in 2016 avg 1.8 million viewers (2.0 million in 2015) and down 17% from the 2013-2014 season(2.1 million) making the ratings the lowest since the 2009-2010 season.

And NFL ratings are currently down 10% in 2017 compared to 2016, on top of a 8% decrease in ratings in 2016.

Boses
Boses

I hope things will get better.

I suppose there are some fundamental problems.  We need to take a big look at everything and resolve.  
There is no excuse why we don't dominate this game. 

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

What a let down. But better this then stinking it up at the World Cup and finishing last in the group. Time for the top dogs to re-evaluate our youth system.


BTW: Millions of dollars are now lost. From TV to sports establishments to advertisements.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@McGarnagle Can't be worse than not qualifying. Missing the 2018 World Cup will have major ramifications within USSF financially especially after having to pay Jurgen Klinsmann over $6 million to go away last November. The amount of money already spent (with the assumption the USMNT would be a World Cup Qualifier )setting up camps and Games and marketing also is now money lost. Also the effect on Sponsorships and attracting new sponsors will increase the deficit even more, the USMNT has dug a hole for the USSF it may take a decade or more to get out of.

Hell Horsey
Hell Horsey

If you think Mexico is the only great soccer power in CONCACAF, you're even more stupid than we all thought.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@birdrow @Buschleaguer No not really,watching  USMNT play futbol is about as exciting as watching paint dry, Why the US cannot field a world class team in 2018 is beyond me. I do not think the Trinidad and Tobago /USMNT game was even broadcast on any cable station I have. ESPN2 (the usual US outlet) had on World series of Poker.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@birdrow @Buschleaguer Not a yawn about Futbol (Soccer) just the USMNT , the most uninspired group of athletes I have ever seen on a pitch. It is almost as if they expect to win just by showing up in a US jersey ,without putting in the effort necessary to be successful.It appears US Men are no closer to being World Class than they were in 2000.

DawgNole
DawgNole

@birdrow

Even the woebegone Braves are more exciting on TV than soccer, as the ratings have consistently shown for decades.

UWreckMeBaby
UWreckMeBaby

@DawgNole @birdrow I agree. I watched soccer when my daughter and nephews played rec league and high school, and some of the World Cup matches. That's all I could stand. Enjoy the Braves, even when they suck. It was more fun when they didn't though.