The U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) were almost certain they would qualify for the World Cup. However, after their 2-1 loss against Trinidad and Tobago, the United States will have to watch next summer’s tournament from their living rooms. What went wrong and what is next for soccer in America?
The year is 1986 and Top Gun is the number one movie in theatres. Oprah Winfrey debuts her talk show on television, Stephen King’s It is being published, Ronald Reagan is President, and the USMNT did not qualify for the World Cup. That was the last time the United States did not make it to FIFA’s premier competition…until now.
The United States only needed a win or a draw on Tuesday to place 3rd in the CONCACAF qualifying and book a direct ticket to Russia 2018. Even with a loss, they would have most likely placed 4th and made an intercontinental playoff round versus Australia in November. The U.S. had good chances at qualifying since the two other teams still fighting for a spot were Honduras and Panama, facing Mexico and Costa Rica respectively. The only way the USMNT could miss out altogether was by losing their match and having both Panama and Honduras winning. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index projected only a 3 percent chance that all three events would happen. But they did.
So how did the USMNT get in this position?
– They won three, drew three and lost four games in the final qualifying round of CONCACAF. That is the most losses in a single qualifying campaign in team history.
– Before this cycle, the U.S. had two home losses in its previous 53 home qualifiers since 1980. This time they lost to both Mexico and Costa Rica.
– Only receiving 12 points from 10 games is their worst performance since the current qualifying format took place in 1998.
The result against Trinidad and Tobago might seem like tough luck for the Americans, but in reality, it was a deserved win for the Caribbean nation. The U.S. had everything to play for, but could not muster up a performance worthy of a comeback from being 2-0 down . Unlike Honduras and Panama, who did beat CONCACAF powerhouses Mexico and Costa Rica, and respectively secured their tickets to Russia. To not qualify from one of the most forgiving regional competitions is a testament of the Americans’ level for the last two years.
After the game, players were still in shock as to what had just happened, and many were holding back tears. One of them was defender Omar Gonzalez:
“I just want to say sorry to all the fans that were pulling for us, that wanted to go to Russia, that believed in us. We let down an entire nation today.”
Team captain Michael Bradley said they had no one else to blame but themselves. The captain was right; the players, coaches, and federation officials cannot blame the other teams or refereeing decisions for not qualifying. The U.S. had ten opportunities to get the job done, but they didn’t do it.
The worst part is the repercussions it will have on the country and its fans. Every four years the United States sees a huge boost in soccer popularity. In 1986, most Americans would think that the World Cup was a fancy boating race competition. Now it is different. The World Cup will still see a huge number in ratings next summer, but not having a home nation to cheer on will have huge effects on the motivation to watch games. Bars and other social settings could see a big hit in customers. Five other (potentially) unwanted effects include:
1. Youth participation faltering once again – In 2014, there was a 9% growth in kids participating in the sport in all sorts of levels. U.S. Youth Soccer credited the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with the exposure that the home national team had that summer. Their valiant effort all the way up to the quarterfinals was cheered on heavily by the United States and neutrals.
2. Major League Soccer, the country’s first division, could see its relevance go down from fans and players around the world.
3. Sponsors like Nike see a decline in sales – The USMNT jersey is not what drives the big sales but the American brand will certainly not capitalize for another 4 years now that there will not be an official U.S. World Cup jersey.
4. Fox Sports losing advertising money – Just 13 days before the USMNT were eliminated, the cable company FOX announced that the 2018 World Cup was going to be the biggest production in the brand’s 24-year history. Their now unsuccessful plan was to broadcast over 350 live hours of programming with a cost of about $200 million.
5. Key players retiring– Certain older players like Clint Dempsey, DeMarcus Beasley, and Tim Howard may find that their time with the national team has run out. Especially if the manager might look for a fresh start on the field to compliment the likes of Christian Pulisic. The 19-year-old was responsible for 12 of the 17 goals scored via a goal or assist during this qualifying campaign.
But the United States remains a big melting pot of different cultures and multiple ethnicities, so perhaps the Americans can still find a good reason to watch football next summer. It is the World Cup after all.
Featured Image: Steve Evans