John Brooks. Remember him? In the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) opening match of the 2014 World Cup versus rival Ghana, this unknown defender scored a thunderous header late in the game to propel the Stars and Stripes to an emotional victory.
And so began that month long period of World Cup fever. More than 18.2 million Americans watched the USA’s next match in which the team nearly beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portuguese squad. People across the country began to sport those sleek, new bright red uniforms the American players wore during the tournament. The team looked strong and impressively made it out of the group stage and onto the last 16 round, where the run finally ended in a hard-fought 2-1 loss to Belgium.
With the US’s elimination, the fever quickly died down within a few weeks. However, that month or so of soccer was an indicator of the progress the sport had been making in this country. The 2014 edition was the most viewed World Cup in American sports history. America has the most youth soccer players out of any country in the world, and soccer is the country’s third most played sport by children. The growing soccer culture in America was reinforced by a strong statement made on the world’s biggest stage. Surely, four years later, we would all catch World Cup fever once again…
Trinidad and To-what now?
Trinidad and Tobago. The USMNT had a 97 percent chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup according to ESPN. Instead, the Americans got their hamburgers and french fries handed to them by 83rd-ranked Trinidad and Tobago, a team situated on a small island off the coast of northeastern Venezuela. With two other matchups ending unfavorably, the USMNT was eliminated. The loss and resulting inability to qualify for the tournament is pure embarrassment. And the implications on the future of the sport in this country could hurt even more.
Without the aspect of national pride in the 2018 World Cup, the same fervor that allowed the 4.6 million average American viewers to jump to 18.2 million American viewers during the USA vs. Portugal game in 2014 has no base to develop. For the viewers who are not particularly invested in the sport, there is no national investment for them to tune in, no commotion to be made, no cause to rally around. And without this massive publicity, the sport’s growth is hampered.
The absence of the United States from soccer’s biggest stage is a major setback for the sport’s popularity. A sport that was beginning to get a foothold in the American sports landscape now faces the major obstacle of the United States missing soccer’s biggest stage. National team coach Bruce Arena has already resigned after this embarrassment of a qualifying campaign. However, the problem with US soccer has much deeper roots that won’t be addressed with a managerial switch. Currently, there is a huge financial barrier in the form of a pay-to-play system that prevents lower-income talent from investing themselves in the sport. Players with stories like starting goalkeeper Tim Howard— raised by a single immigrant mother and noticed by an assistant national team coach at a $25 clinic— have little to no chance to exert their talents and passion for the game as it is. Now, with at least eight years before the next World Cup the USMNT will be competing in, the sport’s growth will surely be stunted, and thus the affordable opportunities for players of all incomes will decrease.
In the summer of 2018, the United States will sit back and watch as countries from across the world compete on soccer’s biggest stage. Perhaps, in 2022, the USMNT will once again have an opportunity to further popularize the sport of soccer by participating in the world cup. Until then, one can only wonder not only how much missing the tournament will mean to the team, but how much it will impede the progress of a game more and more Americans started to watch, play and love.