The loss hurts doubly for U.S. soccer fans. They mourn because they won’t be able to root for their team next summer, but also because this feels like a major setback in the battle to expand the reach and recognition of soccer in the United States. The sport competes for attention in a saturated sports culture and carries various associations — that it is too suburban, or else too foreign — used by some to argue that it isn’t really our game, that it isn’t quite at home here. Qualifying for the men’s World Cup, and doing well internationally, has always seemed like the way to prove the opposite.
There will be much less media coverage of the World Cup now that the United States is not playing. But many people will still watch. Today, soccer fandom is more anchored here than it has ever been. Established Major League Soccer teams and new ones have rapidly garnered strong and devoted fans. National Women’s Soccer League teams are growing, as I’ve seen attending the games of the Carolina Courage, which moved to North Carolina this year and already has a devoted fan base. The television audiences for professional games in the English Premier League, the Spanish leagues and the Mexican league are all on the rise. And, of course, the United States is the defending women’s World Cup champion. You could argue that the United States may be one of the best countries in the world in which to watch soccer, with a web of both women’s and men’s professional teams and a variety of games shown on television. Soccer fans here are used to following professional teams and tournaments abroad, and the connection the sport gives us to the rest of the globe is part of the draw.
Once U.S. fans recover from the shock, there are a few lessons to be absorbed. One is simply never to underestimate Central American and Caribbean teams from countries with deep soccer traditions, even if they are much smaller and have far fewer resources for their programs. Soccer is a sport of delicious unpredictability. Small nations often upset bigger ones. During this summer’s Gold Cup, the tiny island of Martinique played well against the U.S. team and almost eked out a victory. Iceland, with a population of 300,000, defeated England in last year’s European Cup in a game attended by a 10th of the island’s population, and have now qualified for the 2018 World Cup ahead of many larger European nations. Trinidad and Tobago’s victory last night may have been unexpected, but it was not inconceivable. The wild drama of last night is just what draws so many to the sport.
The U.S. men’s team and the U.S. Soccer Federation definitely have some soul-searching to do. There are serious questions about whether our youth development system is working as well as it should. In 2014, the United States went to the World Cup with a German coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, and with five young players who had been raised in Germany and trained in that country’s very successful youth system. Klinsmann’s approach bore fruit then. This year, the presence of the young star Christian Pulisic, from Hershey, Pa., raised hopes that we are finally getting there in terms of developing players in the United States, although Pulisic himself left to go train and play in Germany starting in 2015.
One of the keys to the future of U.S. soccer will be tackling the inequalities that structure the sport in this country. In contrast to places like France and Germany, most of the clubs and academies here require significant investment on the part of parents. The “pay-to-play” model means that many potentially great players don’t get access to training and resources, or to the routes that lead to collegiate scholarships. That may be difficult to change — the sports systems of France and Germany are the way they are because the countries are social democracies, with strong state funding of sports and recreation at all levels. Yet some lessons can be drawn from their histories.
In the 1970s, France failed to qualify for two men’s World Cups in a row, a deeply traumatic experience. This led to a major government investment in national training academies as well as infrastructure for recreational sports throughout the country. One of the key shifts — one later emulated successfully by Germany and Belgium — involved making sure immigrant communities had access both to recreational sport facilities and to the routes of recruitment for soccer academies. The current U.S. team has many players of immigrant backgrounds, including the star Haitian American forward Jozy Altidore. But at the grass-roots, there is much more that can be done to make ensure all communities and youth players get equal access to sources of support and training.
The U.S. Soccer Federation also needs to directly address gender inequality. The United States has won three World Cup trophies: in 1991, 1999 and 2015. The men won none of them. Our women’s national team can probably be considered the best in the world, and the final of the 2015 World Cup was the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history. The USSF, however, has consistently given less support to women’s soccer, and in 2016, five of the most prominent women’s players charged the federation with wage discrimination. This led to a better deal for women’s players in April 2017, but inequalities remain striking, especially given how successful the women’s team has been compared with the men’s.
In the coming years, the United States can solidify its position as one of the global centers for women’s soccer. As a nonprofit organization that exists to support soccer at all levels in the U.S., USSF should follow the lead recently taken by Norway and move toward equal pay and equal bonus structures for women and men on the national teams. With the women’s World Cup in France coming up in 2019, there is an opportunity to pursue gender equality and soccer growth at the same time.
This summer, meanwhile, U.S. soccer fans will do what most people elsewhere in the world do: Watch the men’s World Cup even though their nation isn’t competing. One of the pleasures of the tournament, after all, is always that it allows us — even requires us — to be open-minded and generous in our affinities. As we watch, we won’t be able to root for the United States, but we can make other choices. We can choose Pan-American solidarity, rooting for our CONCACAF neighbors Costa Rica or Panama, which will be in the tournament for the first time in its history. We can root for Argentina — because Lionel Messi. We can root for Germany, because they always seem to win, or root against them for the same reason.
Let’s watch. And learn. And think about whether we can organize soccer differently in this country. Tuesday night’s defeat was hard. But soccer isn’t going away — no matter how much U.S. soccer fans might want it to right now.