With the elimination of the United States from the World Cup in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Belgian national team, a verdict on the meaning of the American experience in the competition in Brazil is beginning to take shape: The team performed in gallant but ultimately disappointing fashion, but the tournament has given a major boost to the status of soccer in the United States. Both conclusions are false. The American team did better than could reasonably have been expected; and soccer in the United States will remain what it has been for fifty years—a niche sport with a modest if loyal following and a smaller place in the American sporting universe than baseball, football, basketball, and even ice hockey, except during the quadrennial World Cup. The regular seasons and championship playoffs of the better-established sports will continue to attract far more attention than those of the MLS, America’s major soccer league. If soccer is not destined to loom large in American national life, however, for political reasons the United States may, in the years ahead, nonetheless come to play a greater role in the world of soccer.
The 207 countries that participated in the World Cup qualifying matches over the past several years fall into three classes. The largest of them, the proletariat of global soccer, includes those that hope to win enough matches in their respective regions to become one of the 32 that play in the tournament. Most, of course, fail to do so. The middle class consists of countries that can be confident of qualifying for the month-long tournament every four years, but have no realistic chance of winning it. They aspire to get through the first stage—a round robin among four teams, of which there are eight groups—and get to the second, knock-out stage.
The United States is firmly entrenched in this second class and stands far outside the ranks of soccer’s aristocracy—countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Germany for which anything less than winning the championship counts as a disappointment. On the one hand, the American team has qualified for the past seven World Cups in succession. On the other, on only four of these occasions has it gone through to the knockout round, and only once won a game in that round and advanced to the quarter-finals.
In this year’s tournament, the American team was probably the least skilled of the four in its group and decidedly inferior to Belgium. It managed to advance beyond the group stage and keep the score against the Belgians close through its admirable tenacity and the heroic efforts of its goalkeeper, Tim Howard—perhaps the best soccer player the United States has ever produced. Politically, economically, and culturally the United States is routinely described as the best, or, alternatively, the worst of countries, but it is almost never accused of being what American soccer unquestionably is: mediocre.
Ah, but that will now change, according to the emerging conventional wisdom. The Brazilian experience will act as a kind of growth hormone for the sport in the United States. This is unlikely. For one thing, the features of the game that put Americans off and that have been reduced or eliminated in all the major American team sports—too little scoring and too many ties—remain major obstacles to widespread popularity. For another, to break through to the status of baseball, football, and basketball, soccer faces a kind of chicken-egg problem. It can become more popular if the national team gets better. But the United States won’t field a better national team unless and until the sport is more popular and more important at home.
America doesn’t produce soccer players as good as those of other countries because it lacks the necessary traditions, infrastructure, and incentives that they all possess. In Europe and Latin America an athletically gifted youngster will be steered into a soccer-training program and, if he is good enough, apprenticed as a teenager to a professional club. The United States has a youth soccer program as well, but it is not as rigorous and does not have first call on the best young American athletes. They grow up wanting to be Tom Brady, Lebron James, or Miguel Cabrera, not Lionel Messi (the Argentine who is probably the best player in the World Cup).
Turning Americans into world-class soccer players faces yet another obstacle. To be the best requires playing with the best. The best players play in leagues in England, Germany, Italy, and Spain. An ambitious and talented American soccer player in the 21st century confronts the same imperative that American writers and painters felt in the 19th: In order to reach the highest levels he must go to Europe. Many don’t want to go. Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the American World Cup team who was a celebrated player in Germany, has criticized some of the most accomplished Americans for their reluctance to commit themselves to careers on the other side of the Atlantic. Not coincidentally, the American star Tim Howard has played for the past ten years at the highest level in England, in the English Premier League.
Even without an American team on a par with the best from Europe and Latin America, the current World Cup has, as reported, attracted more attention in the United States, with higher television ratings, than ever before. This has two causes, neither of which portends rapid upward ascent for soccer in the firmament of American sports. First, the United States now has more immigrants than ever before, many from Latin America, who have come with cultural habits and customs from their countries of origin, including enthusiasm for what they (and the rest of the world) call “football.” Second, the soccer in Brazil benefits from the most powerful of modern collective emotions, nationalism. Americans pay attention because an American team is competing with foreigners. In this way the World Cup resembles the Olympic games. Every four years they transfix the country. They, too, earn high television ratings. This does not, however, make swimming or track and field national preoccupations at other times. The same will be true of soccer.
If the sport is destined to retain its modest place in the American sporting landscape, however, the United States may play a major role in international soccer in the years ahead. The next two World Cup tournaments are scheduled for Russia in 2018, and Qatar in 2022. It is entirely possible that neither will take place as is currently planned. Russia under Vladimir Putin has resumed the nasty Soviet habit of invading and occupying the territory of other countries. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the political backlash led to a widely observed boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Protests against the ongoing Russian occupation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, and against further acts of aggression that Putin may choose to commit between now and 2018, could trigger a boycott extensive enough to force the tournament to be relocated. As for Qatar, its summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the harsh conditions it imposes on the guest workers who sustain its economy, and the bribes its government is reported to have paid to secure the right to stage the 2022 tournament all combine to make it increasingly unlikely that the World Cup will actually take place there.
If the next two World Cups have to be moved, where should they go? The obvious choice is the United States. It already has the necessary facilities: virtually every one of the 32 stadiums that host the professional teams of the sport that Americans call football would be suitable for World Cup matches. Some have already been used for this purpose, in 1994, when the tournament was held in nine American cities. The United States is neutral ground for the soccer powers of Europe and Latin America—as well as for the less important soccer-playing countries of Asia and Africa. Staging the competition can give what is often seen as an unfair advantage to the host country, which, playing at home in front of supportive fans, has several times won the tournament. Because it is situated in the ranks of the game’s middle class, not its elite, however, this would not be problem with the United States, which would make it acceptable to other countries as a venue.
If it should come to pass that one or both of the next two World Cups do take place in the United States, three things will happen: the tournament will run smoothly; the American team will not win; and there will be an outpouring of confident assertions that soccer is well on its way, at last, to becoming a major American sport.