“SOCCER HAS ARRIVED IN THE UNITED STATES! And it’s here to stay … just look at the watch parties, full stadiums stateside watching the United States Men’s national team play in the World Cup. Check out the television ratings! More viewers tuned in for the game versus Portugal than the Stanley Cup finals and the NBA finals …” If you listen closely, you can literally hear the optimism ooze out of every Budweiser-soaked pore of the average American soccer fan and media personality.
The United States survived the perceived ‘Group of Death’ which, while an impressive feat, masks a slew of issues related to the state of American soccer. The victory against the longtime nemesis, Ghana, in Natal had all the guts and glory we’ve all come to expect from a USMNT performance. The near victory against a wounded yet talented Portugal side in Manaus was drenched in as much sweat as it was in “what might have been” as the Portuguese equalised in the dying seconds of the game. And never had a defeat to Die Nationalmannschaft felt so much like a victory as the assertive Germans seemed to show mercy and stay in second gear with the understanding that the U.S. wouldn’t try anything too bold lest the vaunted Mannschaft lay siege upon their legendary striker and former coach’s brave team of underdogs. All of these gmaes melded so well with the mania and euphoric re-assertion that “soccer has arrived in America”. But has it?
Without a doubt, soccer is as American as baseball, basketball and American football, and to suggest otherwise is a blatant attempt to ignore fact, figures, and reality altogether. The incredible escape from a tough group bumped both beer sales and soccer-related business in the States and allowed the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer to pat themselves (and each other) on the back for such amazing progress — but let’s peel the paper so freshly laid over the cracks in the American soccer system.
The pageantry and football-laden delirium has definitely taken hold of American audiences no thanks to the fanatical support group dubbed The American Outlaws and Sam’s Army (to name a few) combined with extended television coverage from ESPN and Univision Deportes provided to ensure the World Cup was in the periphery of every pub, corporate space, home, and NFL stadium hosting a watch party. Soccer in the American sporting and cultural periphery is arguably where it threatens to return as American interest in the World Cup flickers out.
It’s interesting to hear “soccer has arrived” in the United States to the ardent supporters who heard the same thing when the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994 and in 2002 when the USMNT bravely found themselves in the quarter-finals of the tournament after an embarrassing showing in France 98. To both the newly-converted and introduced fan, World Cup 2014 encompassed everything needed to generate buzz. In essence, to the casual fan, Brazil was hook, line, and sinker to a resistant country’s audience. But was it really?
Salvador, Brazil: the United States faced off with one of the tournaments dark horses in a fully-loaded Belgium side that proved to the world that even with supreme individual talent, the sum is great than the parts — and it didn’t take the entire 120 minutes against a dogged and tireless USMNT side to prove it. It took less than thirty-seven seconds as Kevin De Bruyne sliced through the American midfield and slotted a beautiful pass to Divock Origi who did well to get a shot off and Tim Howard did even better to save. That play didn’t require a goal to exemplify what the Belgium excels at and what the United States excels at in world football.
The opening seconds of the match saw superior individual technical talent combining with intelligent attacking movements for the Belgians clashing against one of the quality mainstays of American soccer for decades in excellent goalkeeping. Anyone who’s played or seen the game at a high enough level knew this was going to be a long day for the United States. For the casual and newly-converted fan of American soccer — this was going to be really exciting.
The match produced one of the most heroic goalkeeping performances (and not the first heroic goalkeeping performance of the tournament) the World Cup has seen in decades. Tim Howard exemplified where America really is with regards to competing on football’s world stage. Belgium exposed the gulf between the two sides technically and tactically. While American fans and media grovelled over how hard the team worked and how many miles they ran, the rest of world simply looked at the scoreboard and win/loss record as an indicator of performance.
When the match was over, Belgium had its fourth win in the bag and some of its top stars still fresh on the bench, while the United States had a single victory, a draw, and two losses and an injury-ridden, exhausted squad to boot. The Americans competed, and personally I admired that they never put their heads down or looked like giving up. Same old song and dance for American soccer — work hard, run far, exit stage left.
The glaring issue heading into the World Cup for the United States was never the omission of a Landon Donovan. The glaring issue during the World Cup was never how the team would cope without Jozy Altidore or how much mileage will Michael Bradley be required to log for the good of the cause. No, the glaring issue was the fact that like many iterations and cycles of the national team before this one, hard work was an accomplishment, not an expectation. Every team works hard at the World Cup.
Very few supporters were brave enough to point out that a team should be more embarrassed that they allowed so many shots on their own goalkeeper lest the ravenous and newly-formed “soccer authorities” jump at the critique with knives out. Debates are good. It means people who’ve always cared still care. And it means those new to the party care enough to defend what they know and love. But what most fans of the World Cup haven’t quite realized that if US Soccer is to improve, people must demand better and must balance the plaudits with being critical — even if there are plenty of excuses in the arsenal of US Soccer coaches and fans.
Here’s the reality: the moment American soccer as a whole begins to value technique the same way it values sweat-soaked adjectives like hard work and determination — their overall level of play on every level will improve. There was a time a when American sides couldn’t compete with other teams technically, but they could outwork them. In the continued trajectory of the sport in the United States since 1989 when Paul Caligiuri’s famous goal hit the back of the net against Trinidad and Tobago, qualifying the US for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years was dubbed “the goal that changed soccer in the United States”, the expectation has not really ascended in unison with the product on the pitch.
The United States is a country that has an unrivaled level of infrastructure and both talent and resources in abundance, yet the echo chambers claim America can’t mimic what Spain and Belgium have done for a myriad of pessimistic reasons. Perhaps the social inequality, the vast size of the contiguous United States, and the “competition” with other notable sports (those are my favorites) do pose a problem that would repel any change.
A number of Americans vehemently claim: “We shouldn’t just copy what foreign countries do … we should build our own system,” to which I say, “That’s precisely what other countries do: adopt and adapt other models in an effort to not only seek, but achieve marked improvement.” That is what American culture, the American populous, and American history has relied on since the country’s inception — inclusion and adaptation of what works elsewhere when applicable. It’s clear American can’t merely copy and paste what works and expect great results, however, there must come a time when the American soccer system must be overhauled and rebuild from the ground-up, not the top-down.
Costa Rica’s glorious run may or may not be a testament their hard work or determination. However, their progress surely speaks of an ideal of furthering their expectation beyond working harder for longer periods of time. Many Costa Ricans suggest they survived the real Group of Death and the country’s proud slogan, Pura Vida (Spanish for ‘pure life’) has definitely breathed new life into Los Ticos.
On paper, the United States garnered success in Brazil and captivated the hearts of millions of fans, naysayers, and people back home. In reality, the next cycle of USMNT players will have the opportunity to build off the momentum of this tournament going forward knowing that the team can survive a tough group with a blend of fortune, fitness, unity, and guts — but now that “soccer has arrived in the United States” the expectation will rise as will the bar for performance. Or at least it had better.
Long after the chants of optimism and belief die down the chants of expectation will begin ring down from the rafters of every sports bar and stadium in the United States. The role of the underdog isn’t a compliment. It’s one laden with built-in excuses at the ready. The time for excuses is over. For many, it has been over for years. It’s time to improve. U.S. Soccer needs to seriously consider what the path forward looks like.
Every four years the United States can’t just “work hard”. Perhaps it should study Belgium or Spain’s model (and modify it, who knows, it might work), build a center of excellence, re-think the Development Academy system (targeting 14 to 18-year-olds is too late), or open the league system. One unassailable point is 2018 will be here sooner than we think. Whatever path U.S. Soccer decides to take, know this, it doesn’t have to worry about the world watching because now, the American people will be watching closer than ever before.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3