We are less than one week away from the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup but the hype machine has been churning for the U.S. national team:
“We are due for a win over Ghana, we should have won the match four years ago.”
“Portugal is Ronaldo and a bunch of overrated players; if he has a bad game we can win.”
“Germany is good, but we beat Spain and we’ve beat Germany in our friendly. Anything is possible!”
For a country with very little World Cup success, U.S. fans have a ton of confidence going to Brazil. We are the weakest team in the Group of Death, but because we have a semi-tough qualifying federation and have had glimpses of international success, we are confident that the team is not getting the respect it deserves and Jurgen Klinsmann’s men are going to “shock the world.” Many U.S. fans have an attitude of almost hubris, that the world can’t be right because we are an emerging soccer power and can “hang” with the best, especially if the breaks go our way.
The reality is that this is a false view of our place in the soccer world, and in many ways makes us more like the English media than we want to admit.
The reality is that if the United States is an emerging soccer power, it is at the infant stage. We finished last in the group stage in 2006, and we barely advanced from a weak group in 2010. In this year’s qualifying, the United States benefited from a weak Mexico. The best player on the USMNT right now has been left at home, while the other major stars left Europe to play for MLS. Maybe even more concerning for the future of the program is the fact that only one player from the U-23 squad that tried to qualify for the 2012 Olympics made this team, suggesting Klinsmann does not trust the previous youth set-up.
If we gave this team’s profile but omitted the name, we would assume it was maybe another CONCACAF nation that would be fodder for the better teams in group. We naturally assume this team is better because it says “United States” above the preview. There is an advantage to the U.S. Soccer Federation for portraying this team as better than it is. A good USMNT with so many MLS players on it naturally means the league itself is top notch, a goal they have been trying to promote and convince the media for the past few years. Additionally, a national team that is an international contender does not mean the World Cup 2010 goal was a failure and that the country is on course to assuming its place among the world’s elite. Failure in 2014 would be regarded the same way – an unfortunate fluke.
The truth is that entering the realm of World Cup contenders is hard. Very hard. The Netherlands revolutionized soccer with its style and some of their World Cup squads are considered the best teams ever, but they have never won this trophy. England invented the sport, but won only one World Cup that happened to be on their home soil. Spain is now considered to be possibly the greatest team ever (especially if they win this year) but it took decades for them to reach the point of underachievers before they could shake that label. But at least these teams compete every four years: Scotland has contributed some of the sport’s greatest players and managers but their squad will be watching the tournament at home. Unlike almost every other sport we play, we are not the best nor are we close. We are just beginning to be even thought of as relevant in the international soccer world, and in the modern era this means we have years to go before being consistent contenders.
This, however, can be a good thing. America is at its best when we are the underdogs. We don’t love teams like the current Miami Heat, New York Yankees of the late 1990s, or even the Olympic men’s basketball “Dream Teams”. We idolize the 1980 men’s Olympic hockey team, the 1969 “Miracle Mets” and the 1950 men’s national soccer team that beat England at its own game. We have always been a nation of underdogs, from our founding, and we should embrace that status now in international soccer — not give it lip service to drum up support for the team, but truly realize it. Our youth system needs major work, our national team, without major luck, is years from a World Cup trophy, and our domestic leagues are slowly gaining traction. By assuming we are close to elite in soccer, we do ourselves a disservice and prevent ourselves from taking a hard look at what we need to fix and what we need to do to get to the upper echelon of this game.
U.S. fans should take a hard look at this team and realize what it is – Australia with a better domestic league and a more stable soccer system. That does not mean U.S. fans (the author included) should enjoy the games any less or cheer any less loudly. It does mean that we should not blame “bad luck,” one poor decision, or a call that does not go our way if we do not advance. We should be proud, but smartly so.