Tuesday, Oct. 10. An entire country dejected. That is, for those who knew that anything significant happened in the sports world, it wasn’t good if you root for U.S. soccer. The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) missed out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer. This is the first time they have failed to reach the tournament since 1986. That’s seven four-year cycles.
To help put this in perspective, the top three grossing movies in the U.S. that year were: “Top Gun,” “Crocodile Dundee” and “Platoon.” U.S. soccer is on a highway to the danger zone. Qualifying is over and here we are, in shambles, set to miss out on Putin’s big party. It’s not just America kicking itself at this missed opportunity. The Netherlands, Chile, and Wales—two real soccer powers and a squad that improbably made it to the semifinal of last summer’s Euros—all failed to get to Russia as well.
The bar to get into the tournament keeps rising higher and higher, which is a positive step for the universal health of the game worldwide. But where does that leave all the American soccer fans who have been supporting the USMNT and salivating at the idea of their country getting one step closer to the pinnacle of the sport? It’s left us reeling. And it’s left us rueing our mistakes. This painful process has already begun. Taylor Twellman, former national team player turned prominent soccer commentator and color analyst for ESPN, didn’t take long after the loss to burst forth with a televised tirade about the failings of the USMNT.
“As a whole, U.S. soccer is not prepared,” he said. “The gloves should have been off years ago. We should have been having real criticisms.” We’ve seen this as a theme in the soccer-specific media that covers the USMNT. Another former USMNT player, the great ginger former defender Alexi Lalas, had recently gone on a similar rant expressing his distaste with the then-possibility of not qualifying for the World Cup. “This is a time for leaders to step up,” he said. The quote that went viral came a bit later: “What are you guys gonna do? You gonna continue to be a bunch of soft, underperforming, tattooed millionaires?” “Make us believe again,” he said. “You don’t owe it to yourselves, you owe it to us. And get off my lawn!"
The lack of accountability for the actual players on the team is what makes these pundits so angry. Most of the discussion surrounding the USMNT has been about structural issues: problems with the system of finding and preparing American soccer players for top-level competition. That argument has real value, but what Twellman and Lalas are speaking about is cultural as well as systematic. It's the idea that we don’t hold our soccer stars accountable for their failures, which is partially due to the tenuous nature of soccer fandom in America.
According to the Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski book “Soccernomics,” the U.S. underperformed horribly on the international stage from 1980-2001. Out of the 98 countries for which there was enough data, the U.S. ranked no. 91 on the list for what they called “underachievement” (a metric which measured the actual goal difference minus the expected goals difference in matches played). “If only Americans took soccer seriously, the country’s fabulous wealth and enormous population would translate into dominance,” they wrote.
This is the sentiment that the new generation of talking heads just can’t seem to let go of. And they feel obligated to finally speak their minds. Broadcasters and writers are reluctant to cover the USMNT negatively because they think it might drive away business in a sport where every step forward in national interest is a brutal struggle. U.S. soccer has managed to crawl forward ever so slowly, year-by-year, partially because of an effort to steadily grow the group of people who might actually have an interest.
So let’s go back to Oct. 10.
What transpired was a cauldron of uncertainty as the USMNT and now former head coach Bruce Arena endured decrepit match conditions on Tuesday in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago at the Ato Boldon Stadium — a venue that was so waterlogged, it had a moat around the field as well as audible machinery pumping out water during the match. The U.S. played poorly and lost their final game of World Cup qualifying matches, 2-1.
As this was happening, Panama scored late, courtesy of Román Torres (also of the Seattle Sounders), who subsequently exploded in shirtless jubilation. Torres and Panama get the spoils of heading to their country’s first ever World Cup. Now the USMNT is moribund. American soccer must endure being shunned from the big kid’s table for the first time in over 30 years. And as we all know, the real reason for being upset at missing out on the best table in the house is not the food, it’s the conversation.