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07.08.14

The World Cup Still Hasn’t Conquered America

Every four years, a certain segment of the American sports media suffers from amnesia and persists in the delusion that ‘World Cup fever’ is the same thing as love for soccer.

In a witty and memorable piece in the July 3, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin articulated the collective thoughts of American soccer fans going into the World Cup: “Soccer in America is growing. Our team is a genuine world power. We made the quarterfinals last time, so this year, just maybe …”

Yeah, maybe. Team America didn’t make it out of the first round that year. Except for a goal here or there, that’s pretty much been the story of the United States in World Cup competition since the American sports press began taking serious notice in the early ‘80s.

I have a fat file of clips of the U.S.’s World Cup history. One of the first is from the June, 1983 issue of Sport magazine which begins: “Soccer [in the U.S.] was the sport of the seventies. No, make that the sport of the eighties. Well, maybe if the NASL can put together a team to play in the World Cup. Would that do it?”

It didn’t do it. The NASL (North American Soccer League) went under in 1984, and Team USA again failed to qualify for World Cup competition in 1986. (We actually didn’t make it to the World Cup from 1954 through 1990.)

1994 was supposed to be the turning point for the U.S. team in the wake of success as we advanced past the Group Stage to the Round of 16 before losing to mighty Brazil “just” 0-1. That year Jeff Klein wrote in the Village Voice that U.S. soccer had reached “the Zeitgeist” and that “soccer had conquered America.”

You can quote similar passages from soccer nuts every time the U.S. team exits the World Cup. As sports historian Curt Smith recently told the Los Angeles Times, “I have the maximum number of fingers and toes, and I don’t have nearly enough to count the times soccer purists have counted this, that or another event as The Event that will make soccer big-time. It never happens.”

From the year of that so-called Zeitgeist, in World Cup competition we’re 5-12 with 6 draws and have been out-goaled 23-33.

Despite the plaudits of the press to America’s tenacity and resilience in losing to Germany by “only” 1-0 and carrying Belgium into overtime, it still comes down to this. In the 1994 World Cup, we won one, lost two and tied one. (The 2-1 defeat of Colombia was our first World Cup victory since 1950. ) This year, we won one, lost two, and tied one.

It’s been 23 years since our women’s soccer team won their first World Cup—they won their second in 1999—and two years since they lit up the Olympics by winning the gold.

Even as the American sports media succeeds in rationalizing our 2014 World Cup performance into a victory—note Slate’s July 2 headline, “This Year’s Joyous, Thrilling Performance shows the USA’s World Cup Future is Bright”—let’s consider what the coach thought about Team USA this year.

After our knockout loss to Belgium, Jurgen Klinsmann expressed the view that our players need a more pressured daily environment to reach the next level: “It makes them feel accountable to not just walk away after a bad performance and nothing happens. If you have a bad performance, then people should approach you and tell you that, so make sure that next game is not bad anymore and that you can step it up.”

I assume this means that Klinsmann thinks his team deserves a realistic assessment of their performance and not the sugar-coated praise begin heaped upon them as they packed their bags for the plane trip home. So here it is: Belgium outshot the US 92-41, and if not for a fantastic performance by goalie Tim Howard, who set a World Cup record with 16 saves, we would have been crushed something like 3-1.

Those of you who do not suffer from the same soccer amnesia as most U.S. futbol fans will recall that after our 2010 elimination, everyone seemed in agreement that the one thing our team needed to do was to stop getting behind in matches and being forced to play catch-up, as if getting behind in the first place was simply a question of bad strategy that could easily be changed.

In our two biggest games of World Cup 2014, against Germany and Belgium, Team USA never led. Though American sports fans love high scoring contests, they will tolerate a sport as low scoring as soccer as long as they have a team to root for. But when a team goes two full regulation games without scoring at all, it’s hard to hold the interest of a lot of people.

Before every World Cup, it seems, soccer savants have told us that World Cup success would do for soccer in the U.S. what American success in the 1980 Winter Olympics did for hockey. But what is that, exactly? An estimated 34 million Americans watched the U.S. defeat the Russians in the so-called “Miracle on Ice,” substantially more than watched either this year’s World Cup match with Germany (just under 26 million) and Portugal (just over 21 million). Did that famous game boost the stock of professional hockey here?  As Chris Rock put it in his great heroin and hockey routine, “Only junkies want heroin, only hockey fans watch hockey.” In fact, more than 27 million American viewers tuned in to the U.S.-Canada hockey game in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

A week ago, Steve Keating of Reuters wrote that “Alongside the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League [the performance of this year’s U.S. World Cup team] has changed North America’s Big Four into the Fab Five.”  What was soccer’s position in the U.S. before this year’s World Cup? What sport did it replace in the top five, bowling?  

Every four years, a certain segment of the American sports media persists in the delusion that “World Cup fever” is the same thing as love for soccer. You’d think that the example of the Olympics, where millions of America root for athletes in sports that they never give a thought to at other times, would correct this notion. As Keith Olbermann commented last week in a sardonic soccer segment, “Our loyal group of fans would go crazy over…the World Cup of Balloon Animals.”

The problem with soccer supremacists is that they’re not content for soccer to be merely one of several popular sports in this country. It has to be king—the most popular, the most Beautiful Game. In the June 30 Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay seemed to brand the skeptics as Soccer Haters. “The stubborn cousin,” he wrote, “to the ‘We’re going to lose!’ complaint is the ‘Once we lose, everyone’s going to go back to not caring about soccer’ argument, which is also a dubious argument, because it’s easy to see plenty of evidence of widening US interest in the global game …”

Congratulations on that observation. It’s been 23 years since our women’s soccer team won their first World Cup—they won their second in 1999—and two years since they lit up the Olympics by winning the gold. The problem with U.S. soccer, to the degree that it is a problem, is the lack of interest in the professional game. Which means the interest in soccer in the four years between World Cups and the World Cup itself when we’re no longer in it.

Think of pro soccer in the U.S. in terms of the myth of Sisyphus, with a guy in a Team USA jersey pushing an enormous soccer ball up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down again when the World Cup is over. But don’t lose heart—in four short years we can all start saying together, “Soccer in America is growing. Our team is a genuine world power. We made the quarterfinals last time, so this year, just maybe …”