While busy Tuesday night keeping up online with Lionel Messi’s heroic hat trick to stave off the unthinkable prospect of Argentina failing to qualify for the World Cup, the all-too-thinkable happened closer to home.
It didn’t seem to matter that the United States men’s national soccer team was playing on some TV channel that was unavailable to many Americans who might have been interested in watching it. There was nothing to worry about.
“We’re going to be there,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena guaranteed a month ago when Fox Sports was kicking off its marketing campaign for the 2018 World Cup in Russia for which the network paid $200 million for English-language broadcast rights.
Why such confidence? There were 27 possible outcome combinations of the three CONCACAF qualifying games on Tuesday night and only one of them would result in the Americans being left out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index rated the U.S. chances of reaching an eighth consecutive World Cup at 93 percent.
All we had to do was at least tie Trinidad &Tobago, an island nation of 1.3 million whose 99th-ranked team in the world had nothing at stake in the outcome. In the unlikely event the U.S. might suffer what raters deemed would constitute the “worst loss in USMNT history,” they’d still advance as long as both Panama and Honduras didn’t beat the top two teams already qualified – Costa Rica and Mexico.
As you might have heard by now since American soccer Twitter melted down on Tuesday night, that 1-in-27 scenario played out in nightmarish fashion. The Americans lost 2-1 on a water-logged pitch in Couva, Trinidad – considered the most embarrassing loss in a checkered U.S. team history. We didn’t have a Messi to bail us out of a hole. We don’t have enough stars like Christian Pulisic to compete at the highest level on the world stage.
We won’t even be on that stage in Russia next year.
It’s obviously a disaster for Fox, which will have a very hard time recouping its rights fees without any chance of luring the eyeballs of the casual American sports fans who may be less inclined to tune in to see Iceland play Iran.
Yes, Iceland (population 334,000) will be there. As will both Iran and South Korea, assuming they still exist next year. Meanwhile, America will be joined on the outside in a “group of dead” by notables like the Netherlands, Cameroon and Chile.
While many Americans have already shrugged off the result with the usual “it’s only soccer” dismissal, it’s a devastating setback for a nation with the population and resources of the United States to be sitting out the biggest sporting party in the world that only comes every four years.
Having already sat out the last two Olympics, the U.S. men’s national team ranks as an unqualified disappointment – especially when compared to the world-class U.S. women’s team.
The latest setback has everyone asking “What’s next?” and how can we finally “Make America Great At Last” in the world’s most popular sport?
Arena, the most successful men’s coach in U.S. history, was about the only one who didn’t see the sky caving in on American soccer.
“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” Arena said after the humiliating elimination. “To make any kind of crazy changes would be foolish. We’re building a good professional league. We have players playing abroad.”
The MLS was proven to be a huge success in its new home in Atlanta, drawing more fans every game than Georgia Tech does for football and basketball combined. The Atlanta United has its own development academy program to produce homegrown talent that hopefully will one day help stock a competitive national team. Maybe as more players turn away from the violence of American football, more superstars will discover their destinies in a different game.
But it’s never been that simple. We’ve been anticipating the U.S. will catch up with the rest of the world ever since Pele showed up to play for the New York Cosmos more than four decades ago. Despite nearly 12 million kids playing soccer in this country every year, we still haven’t come close to competing with the Brazils, Argentinas, Germanys, Spains and Italys of the world.
It’s simply hard to manufacture talents like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar in a culture that doesn’t have children moving around all day with a soccer ball at their feet instead of an iPhone in their hands.
Maybe failure to qualify for the World Cup will motivate promising young American players in a way that reaching the knockout stage in Brazil in 2014 did not.
Hopefully a few more stars will emerge out of the ashes in the next four years to get the U.S. back in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. After that, it probably won’t be as much of an issue when the event expands from 32 to 48 teams in 2026. If the U.S. misses out at that point, it might as well give up.
Until then the United States has learned a harsh lesson about taking things for granted – especially in a sport where our erratic history has never warranted such confidence.