Instead of asking where U.S. Soccer goes from here, let’s take a bit of time to first understand where we are, and why.
Dropping the Oct. 10 match to Trinidad & Tobago and missing out on the Russian World Cup this summer do not change America’s standing in the soccer world.
In the grand scheme of things, we are still operating in the “modern” era of American soccer, thanks to a generation of now-50something players who, almost exactly 28 years earlier (on the same Caribbean island), qualified their country (one that had operated for 40 years as an irrelevant footballing nation) for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. From that moment forward, the U.S. graduated into the company of proper footballing nations, i.e. those that qualify for World Cup finals with regularity and harbor reasonable expectations of advancing out of the group stage. Here’s the proof of this evolution: 1990 marked the first of seven straight World Cup appearances for the U.S., four of which ended in the knockout stage.
To argue that missing the 2018 World Cup “shows everything is wrong with the United States doesn’t follow,” Stephan Szymanski told The New York Times this week. Symanski, co-author of the wondrous book, Soccernomics, is among the keenest soccer observers on the planet. “This doesn’t prove that. Stuff happens. It’s the nature of the game and not necessarily surprising to see the U.S. knocked out. This is what being a soccer fan is like. You’re prone to the extreme event all the time. There’s no royal road, unless you’re Brazil or Germany.”
We’ll unpack this more thoroughly below, but this understanding of world football viability is really important for U.S. fans to get their heads around in wake of this week’s admittedly gut-wrenching events. Not going to Russia truly sucks, on multiple levels, and while it may well prove a “teachable moment” for the U.S. soccer establishment, we are obliged to remain clear-eyed about how international football works and exactly why this failure to qualify (for the first time since 1986) truly IS such a pivotal moment. Because it’s not what you may think.
As I’ve written before, international football is hard. Failures like Tuesday’s happen each and every World Cup (and European Championship) cycle, to perfectly capable footballing nations. England missed the WC in 1974 (just 8 years after winning the whole ball of wax), then again in 1978 and 1994. The Netherlands just crashed out of Russia 2018 qualifying — the second straight major-tournament qualification failure for one of the world’s traditional powers. Chile, runners-up at last summer’s Confederations Cup and one of the game’s most entertaining sides, failed to qualify for Russia, too. So did mighty Italy, qualifiers for every WC finals since 1958.
Every four years, at least one really good European team and one strong South American side don’t qualify for the World Cup. In England, Holland and now Chile & Italy, these failures either have led to or will lead to real soul-searching re. team coaching, talent identification/development, and national team administration. This is the introspective process American soccer is wrestling with now.
But if history is any guide, this introspection will come to nothing.
And that’s okay, because international football is a game of generations. When a generation of talented players comes together, anything is possible. When it doesn’t, you get hammered.
Iceland over the last 10 years is really the only example I can think of where a concerted, national effort was successfully undertaken to produce an all-new and improved national side. This is the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup; that fact surely played a role in helping Icelanders pull in a single directly. Even so, it could well be that this current, world-beating generation of Vikings is simply better than all those that came before (and all to come afterward).
Germany is often cited as an example of how a soccer culture can undergo concerted change, but this example is hardly instructive: The Germans undertook their introspection having “failed” to win the 2002 World Cup final. That should tell you something about their standards. This is a country that won a European Championship in 1996 and a World Cup in 1990. This was not a soccer culture in competitive crisis. Yes, it changed the way it identified, groomed and deployed top young talent, but it did so from an extraordinarily high starting point. [A decent analogy of this situation, for Americans, would be the way USA Basketball changed the way it handled FIBA World Championship tournaments and Olympic competitions starting in 2005, when the national team — then comprised of second-rate pros, not the cream of the crop — started getting consistently beaten in important international competitions.]
Symanski refers to “the royal road”. What he means is this: If you aren’t an elite footballing nation, your fortunes rise or fall on the ephemeral process of somehow producing a critical mass of players within the space of a single generation. Only Brazil and Germany, with their massive reserves of talent, are truly exempt from this transient dynamic. They are the only nations that expect to qualify and compete for a World Cup title each and every quadrennial [That is Symanski’s view of the royal road; I would add Spain, Italy, Argentina and perhaps the French, though Les Bleus — Euro finalist in 2016, champions in 2000; World Cup runners up in 2006, champions in 1998 — qualified for Russia last month only by the skin of their teeth].
These are the elite footballing nations. Everyone else is subject to the same generational ups and downs that elevated Chile (until now), created the Icelandic phenomenon (at which we will marvel through next summer apparently), and doomed our Yanks during the recent Hexagonal.
Look at Belgium, for 30 years a fair to middling side following a semifinal appearance at Mexico ‘86. Today they are WC title contenders. Is that because they instituted some ingenious player development system 10 years ago? No, they’ve maximized the nation’s liberal immigration policy (attracting global talent), got lucky with the development of 10-12 of them (meaning they have all blossomed into top talents at roughly the same time), and have caught lightening in a bottle. Ten years from now, they’ll probably be Belgium again.
Even casual American soccer observers could see this generational issue affecting their national team adversely. Why were aging players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore still playing such central, creative roles? Were Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez really our best centerback options? Sophisticated observers have been talking about American soccer’s “Generation Gap” for some time now. See that explained in full here. In short, the talent produced in the birth years stretching from 1990-96 has never panned out. Indeed, it produced only 5 national team players of quality, whereas most 6-year periods produce 15-20.
This happens to proper footballing nations. There’s very little to be done about. We just have to live with it.
I understand the calls to clean house and change tacks. This is never a bad idea, to truly evaluate how a federation, how a national soccer infrastructure works (or doesn’t). It’s frankly gratifying to see U.S. fans so upset, and so interested in finding solutions. They give a shit — and this is more proof that the U.S. has matured in its standing as a “proper” footballing nation.
That said, we must also maintain a “proper” sense of proportion. No one freaks out and calls for the dismantling of national football establishments when Sweden, or Uruguay, or Bulgaria or South Korea or Wales or Greece fails to qualify for a World Cup. Because this sort of thing happens all the time in the hyper competitive, generationally dependent realm of world football.
For the record, all of those nations listed directly above have reached the semifinals of, or won, major tournaments since 1994.
What does that tell us?
It tells us that Symanski is right. The U.S. graduated from the pool of also-rans in 1990. Since that time, it has enjoyed a quite successful 25-year run of form. It has not yet graduated to the elite level because, well, that is extraordinarily difficult. [The most recent country to elevate itself in this way? Probably France, where the process began with a golden generation, led by Michel Platini in the early 1980s… Or perhaps Spain, which did nothing internationally until its current generation came of age in 2008.] Failing to join the elite is no indictment of American footballing infrastructure. It may well never happen in our lifetimes. It might happen in time for the 2026 World Cup, be over by 2028, at which point we recede into the huge pool of non-elites. That’s just how it is.
It’s not the intention here to soft-peddle the week’s dispiriting events, or to serve as apologist for U.S. Soccer, because the fallout from this failure is real and requires change — just not the sort of change that depends on who’s coaching the USMNT (it won’t be Bruce Arena; he resigned Friday).
American soccer is uniquely and inordinately dependent on its national teams (men and women) to maintain visibility and interest amongst U.S. fans. In one way, this is U.S. soccer’s distinguishing strength. All three “major” American sports — football, baseball and basketball — entertain and engage U.S. fans based almost entirely on wholly domestic competitions: the NFL/college football, Major League Baseball, and the NBA/college basketball.
Soccer’s popularity in America is based largely on the pitting of U.S. national teams against those of other nations, a fact that separates it from these other sports and plays nicely to our highly developed, deep-seated sense of jingoism.
This international dynamic also exists in other proper footballing nations, of course, but it is nearly always complemented by highly developed fan interest in their respective domestic soccer competitions, as well. These league narratives practically fill the gaps between World Cups, federation championships, etc.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is growing in popularity but soccer fans here were born as and remain U.S. national team fans first and foremost. If they follow an MLS team (not a given), that support comes a distant second. Ditto for fans of the women’s game, where the latest professional-league iteration, like all those that came before it, continues to teeter on the edge of economic viability.
This arrangement, whereby national team fortunes are so central to a country’s interest in the game, is unusual — and impractical. The ongoing growth of American soccer requires us to broaden our fandom to include MLS.
Here’s how it should work: In The Netherlands, right now, folks are surely crying in their pommes frite (with mayo) over the hollow World Cup summer to come. But professional football in Holland will otherwise proceed as normal. The Dutch first division, the Eredivisie, is not the best league in Europe, but neither is it the worst. In terms of talent development, it’s spectacular. For these reasons (and for the fact that it was formed in 1956, forty years before MLS), Dutch football fans follow clubs like Ajax and Feyernoord and PSV Eindhoven with nearly as much fervor as they follow their national teams; indeed, they may well have a second, more local, lower-division club they follow nearly as ardently. So, Dutch soccer doesn’t just go way when the national team fails to progress to a major tournament. In fact, this week, truly meaningful Dutch football resumes Oct. 14. just four days after their World Cup 2018 elimination, when the Eredivisie starts back up.
As things stand today, this is where things get truly dicey for U.S. Soccer going forward. Exactly what is going to keep American fans occupied and engaged between now and 2020, when qualification for World Cup 2022 begins? Domestic soccer (MLS) simply does not fill that void here, not yet, not in the same way it does in Holland or pretty much any other proper footballing nation in Europe or South America, where domestic leagues command solid attention, allegiance and viewership 9 months per year, every year.
U.S. soccer fans can, of course, watch Bundesliga, English Premier League and Spanish first division games each and every weekend going forward. We’ll get the normal schedule of Champions League and Europa League matches, too. Come November, we can watch the playoffs for those final World Cup spots.
But will U.S. fans divert the allegiance and viewership it might have reserved for the USMNT to Major League Soccer — this month, when the playoffs start, or next summer when MLS will be the lone manifestation of the American game?
This is the big question/challenge for U.S. soccer going forward. In picking over the entrails of this week’s fateful result, the word “momentum” keeps cropping up. I take this as shorthand for the dynamic described above — that the USMNT has, for the past 30 years, been the engine that drives interest in American soccer. Without that engine, or with the team on such a long hiatus from meaningful matches (and MLS not yet popular enough to pick up this slack), the sport’s long-term prospects are at risk.
It has always been presumed that interest in these European leagues created better, more cultured American soccer fans who, in turn, would a) better support (with their eyeballs) the U.S. Men’s National Team; and b) eventually transfer some of that ardor to an MLS club. Without a USMNT in Russia, without a meaningful USMNT game for 36 months, what happens to this trickle-down scenario?
If this dynamic results in better MLS attendance and television ratings, the Russia 2018 debacle would be wreathed in a bona fide silver lining.
Of course, many U.S. soccer fans have never experienced a World Cup that didn’t include the United States. Will they watch this summer in the same numbers? Probably not, and that’s why Fox Sports is perhaps the biggest victim of this hyper-reliance on national team fortunes. It paid billions for the rights to beam images of Russia 2018 back to a U.S. audience. With the Red, White & Blue wholly absent, their ratings will surely suffer (along with their profits). A better supported MLS would provide Fox and other broadcasters more incentive to throw eggs into that basket, come the next World Cup bidding cycle.
This is the next challenge for American soccer in its evolution as a proper footballing nation: helping our domestic league make the leap from its current position (afterthought), to something that truly engages domestic fans from season to season, entirely apart from U.S. Men’s National Team fortunes.
I’m pretty confident that come the Qatar World Cup of 2022, the U.S. will be there with a newly minted generation of proper footballers. If American fans essentially check out until then, to the detriment of MLS, soccer in this country has bigger problems than we know.