BraZillion-to-One: The Chances of Soccer in America and the US Men’s National Team at the World Cup

By: Joseph Neuhoff

In case you haven’t noticed, most of the world has turned its attention to Brazil and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It is estimated that over three billion people will watch this installment of the world’s most popular game. However, in the United States, while attendance at professional soccer games is up, the overall perception of the sport remains unchanged and perhaps worse than 20 years ago when the US hosted the greatest international sports tournament.

Since 1994, the US has created and sustained a professional men’s soccer league, sent talented players to Europe where the best teams and individuals play, and even convinced some top talent to apply their trade in America. But while Landon Donovan and David Beckham have become household names, research shows that the number of fans and participation has actually dipped in recent years.

According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the number of active participants in soccer has dropped almost 10% from its high of close to 14 million in 2004. Even more alarming, is that the downward swing is primarily from the 6-17 year old demographic. Additionally, in a recent poll from the Washington Post and ABC News about 28% of those interviewed consider themselves an active fan of soccer. That number is down from 31% in 1994. Those numbers aside, there are some positive facts. Average attendance at MLS, the US professional soccer league, is 18,594. That number is actually better than the NHL and NBA, at 17,587 and 17,407 respectively.  While, two out of three Americanswill not watch the World Cup closely, most have stated that they will pay attention to how the US does in the upcoming World Cup.

Among the reasons soccer has struggled to gain traction in America is the idea that the US is not considered a global powerhouse – true soccer fans knows the best teams and players are in Europe. Another part is monetary compensation. The average MLS player salary is $160,000. Compare that to NBA ($5.15 million), MLB ($3.2 million), NHL ($2.4 million) and NFL ($1.9 million) combined with the lack of national exposure on major television networks and you can see why interest and participation in soccer has decreased among the youth of America.

So how important is THIS World Cup to America and more importantly the growth of soccer in America?

Since 1994 the standard of US success at the World Cup has hindered on getting out of the group. This year, the US has drawn one of the toughest groups. Germany is a perennial contender in every tournament, Portugal has the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana has eliminated the US in the last two installments. The “Group of Death” is considered by many to be an impossible challenge for the inferior Americans. Most soccer analysts have already decided the US will not survive the first three matches. It is because of those predictions and prejudices that this World Cup will and should be deemed the most important in American soccer history.

In 1994, as the host nation, US Soccer’s primary goal was to stage the biggest tournament in a grand fashion. That World Cup, which remains the most attended, wasn’t about the US team as much as it was about the spectacle. On the field, the United States’ win against Colombia, a favorite at the time, was enough to avoid a last place finish and spark curiosity and hope among fans heading into qualifying for the 1998 World Cup.

In 1998, though, the team was trounced, scoring one goal in the whole tournament and losing to political rival Iran, which incited a change from US soccer heads to better the team through a national youth movement. After the 1998 World Cup and prior to the 2002 World Cup MLS had its worst attendance averages, culminating in contraction of two professional teams and seizing control of two other struggling clubs. Suddenly, the state of soccer in the US was dire.

Then Landon Donovan arrived. His rise to the US national team brought a youthful exuberance to the game in America. In the 2002 World Cup, the US defeated a heavily favored Portuguese team and miraculously made it out of the group. This marked the first time since 1930 that the US would play past the 2nd round of the tournament. The US defeated Mexico in the Round of 16, eventually losing 1-0 to Germany (2002 runner-up) on a controversial goal in the quarterfinals. With this relative success, though, the face of American soccer changed. The 2002 World Cup opened up huge opportunities for American players in Europe and convinced the world that the US was rising in stature. The nation reached its highest participation in 2004.

Despite the United States’ rise in global prominence, the 2006 World Cup in Germany was a huge disappointment. After getting beat by Czech Republic (3-0) in their opening game, the US tied Italy (2006 Champion) 1-1 in a confrontational game, and needed a win against Ghana to continue on in the tournament. The almost universal sense of disappointment after a 2-1 loss to Ghana solidified the idea that just qualifying for the World Cup was no longer considered a success. Instead, American soccer fans’ perception of success now centered around whether the US advanced to the knockout stage.

Most recently in 2010, the lasting image of Landon Donovan scoring a tournament saving goal in the final minutes and Ian Darke making one of the greatest sports calls in US Soccer history as the US defeated Algeria to advance has become the iconic image of US soccer success. The extra-time loss to Ghana in the next round was heartbreaking. A win would have signified yet another step in the right direction for American soccer, but instead left American fans with a sickening feeling of disappointment. That very feeling – that “we should have beat those guys” mentality – showed just how far the game has come in America and how important the 2014 World Cup would and will be.

Most analysts would have you believe that the US has no shot at advancing in this World Cup. Even the current national team coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, has stated, “The U.S. cannot realistically win this World Cup.” Perhaps that is why he has chosen to remove the most decorated player in US men’s national team history from the roster. Perhaps he is seeking to start another youth movement similar to the one took place after the 1998 World Cup. By leaving Donovan off the team, he can temper the world’s expectations for this year and perpetuate the narrative that they are building for the 2018 World Cup in Russia just as they did for the 2002 World Cup in Japan. Whether Klinsmann actually thinks it to be impossible to advance past the group stage or is simply trying to prepare US soccer brass for the worst, the truth is that US fans will consider this World Cup a failure if the team doesn’t advance to the round of 16.

The United States team understands what it must do to advance. The Americans will play Ghana on June 16th before taking on Portugal on June 22nd and Germany on June 26th. A win against Ghana is a must. If this team wants to showcase later in the tournament, it must beat what is considered the easiest of the three opening round matches. If Germany (a tournament favorite to lift the cup) can defeat Portugal in their opening game, and the Americans beat Ghana, a win in their second match would automatically qualify them for the next round. Presuming the US beats Ghana, even a tie with Portugal might ultimately be enough, assuming Germany also defeats Ghana. Cristiano Ronaldo, the current FIFA Player of the Year, is nursing a bad knee and the Portuguese team looked pedestrian in a warm up match against Mexico, a team the US not lost to since 2011.

If the U.S. defeats Ghana, and can manage at least a draw versus Portugal, the US would go into their final opening round game against Germany with the Germans most likely having already qualified and perhaps resting some of their top players. The Germans will be heavy favorites, but keep in mind they will be without top striker Marco Reus. Further, Klinsmann should know this German squad well, having coached the national team through 2006 and at Bayern Munich in Germany’s top professional league. If the U.S. can earn a win or draw against Germany, they would put the world on notice that they have arrived, perhaps four years earlier than expected.

Regardless of how they get there, advancing past the group stage remains the goal for this U.S. team. Surviving the “Group of Death” could invigorate the viewership of the game in America and provide the type of boost that is needed to continue its prosperity at the international level. Anything after the group stage would be gravy, icing on the cake, house money, or whichever cliché, you prefer. If the U.S. were to somehow advance out of the “Group of Death” AND to the quarterfinals by defeating a (most likely) European team in the Round of 16, it could truly have a monumental impact on soccer in America. Suddenly, the nation’s eyes would be focused on the sport and its national team – writing a fairytale storyline likes of which we haven’t seen since the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 winter Olympics.

Perhaps the idea of a berth in the quarterfinals is far-fetched, but the current state of soccer in America requires this US team to make an impact at this year’s World Cup. The steady growth the sport saw in the United States over the last 20 years in in danger, and losing three games could cripple that growth. 2018 is too far away, and American fans want to win now (in relative terms at least). Everyone loves an underdog, and the US is definitely the underdog in their group. In America, the sport of soccer itself is the true underdog. Starting on June 16th, 23 men have a chance to change the narrative and perhaps become heroes on the sports world’s biggest stage. I will be watching, and even though 2 out of 3 American’s say they won’t, it’s up to those 23 men to make them.

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Joseph Neuhoff is a fan of all sports and entertainment, and believes that the best experiences in life can be attributed to sports, food, and travel.