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Will the US ever win a men’s World Cup?

U.S. World Cup chances

In the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the United States finished third. Granted, only 13 nations qualified and, Argentina battered the Americans 6-1 in the semifinals.

In the 20 iterations of the competition since then, third place remains their best finish. In fact, the closest the Americans came occurred in 2002. Then, in South Korea, a 20-year-old Landon Donovan led the U.S. to the quarterfinals, losing 1-0 to Germany.

The USMNT is long-maligned in terms of their international success. They missed each rendition of the World Cup from 1954 to 1986, nine consecutive tournaments. Despite relative success in recent decades, the Americans missed the 2018 World Cup in Russia after a calamitous October night in Trinidad and Tobago.

However, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented amount of youth success, recently edging Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup finals. The success brings in more American fans, many of whom now expect success against other major soccer nations.

It would be hard to expect a bunch of 20-something-year-old players to deliver on the world’s stage by 2022 in Qatar. Moreover, many of these players are just trying to break into the first-team squads at their clubs. Undoubtedly, there is positive progress for the nation in the realm of soccer. Soccer fans in the United States are beginning to seriously look at the U.S. World Cup chances.

The question remains: will the United States ever win a World Cup, and what must they do to get there?

United States’ World Cup chances rise with youth

In years prior, it was a novelty to see an American playing for a major club in Europe. The aforementioned Landon Donovan appeared for Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton. Tim Howard spent seasons at Manchester United before moving to Everton for a decade.

There are examples, but it was not commonplace.

Enter Christian Pulisic. We all know the story of the American phenom who burst through Borussia Dortmund’s academy. Pulisic is the first American to play in a UEFA Champions League Final, helping Chelsea beat Manchester City this past season.

The Pennsylvania-native carries an enormous burden on his shoulders. But, he has led other American youth to pursue their soccer careers in Europe. Players like Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna or Sergino Dest, who became the first American to play for FC Barcelona in LaLiga, set a new standard. Now, there is a relative abundance of Americans competing throughout Europe.

The young players appearing for the United States’ men’s team illustrate the potential for the U.S. as a soccer federation. With these players receiving first-team minutes at major European teams, they play against top opposition. International soccer is an instance of learning to play the game in different ways. And, by extension, if these young players make a strong impact on the European scene, they bring that experience to the USMNT and their CONCACAF opposition

With success in the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Nations League already apparent, the next logical step is defeating opposition from Europe or South America. Traditionally speaking, that track record is not as strong.

Pulisic is only 22 years old, but the USMNT captain positioned the new generation to realistically believe in U.S. World Cup chances going forward.

A change of culture

When the United States lost to Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017, it came as a shock to many Americans. Surely, a country with as much athletic talent as the United States could muster 11 players to beat Trinidad and Tobago. After all, the island nation’s population is smaller than just Hawaii.

With sports like American football, basketball, baseball and hockey demonstrating what Americans can accomplish, it makes a lack of true international success mind-boggling.

Perhaps the solution can be traced back to the roots in the country. Traditionally speaking, Americans value their ‘big four’ sports that command huge followings at the professional level. It is fun to watch a sport you play growing up, that cannot be denied.

When looking at viewership numbers across sports leagues in the United States, soccer is rising. In 2019, for example, average viewership of MLS games in the U.S. hit 268,000 people. Comparatively, the NHL was at 424,000 viewers. These are average numbers, and obviously some games will pull hefty audiences and other games might not.

That being said, if the United States’ World Cup chances are to improve, this reflects growth.

France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Brazil are the previous five World Cup winners. Soccer dominates these sports in terms of culture. It is the sport to watch, play and follow for men and women, old and young.

With more viewership of the sport in the United States, more people or families become invested in playing the sport. A culture change like this takes years or decades to be realized, but signs of progress are evident currently.

Increasing the Opportunities

In the 2000 European Championship, Germany picked up one point in three games in the group stage. They finished an embarrassing bottom of the group. The tournament served as a wake-up call for the nation’s soccer federation. They launched the Extended Talent Promotion Program in 2003, following a World Cup Final defeat against Brazil. Over the following couple years, Germany and the DFB established 390 bases to train young players aged 11 to 17. Just one year after its announcement, the program aided over 22-thousand young boys and girls.

Nearly 20 years after the establishment of the program, and Germany’s results are tangible. A World Cup is the most glaring success, but what is more remarkable is the constant release of new, young talents throughout Germany.

To bolster the U.S World Cup chances, the first step is to create a similar program. The United States Development Academy reflects the Extended Talent Promotion Program in various ways. According to their own website, the U.S. Development Academy “ensures the most elite players continue competing against each other.”

READ MORE: What the 2026 World Cup means for the United States as a host nation.

What needs to be enforced, however, is regulating who has access to the academy.

For many Americans, soccer is traditionally viewed as pay-to-play, allowing only wealthy families’ kids to play. As we see in relatively poorer nations like Brazil, money does not mean talent. In fact, the argument could go the other way, using players like Neymar as evidence.

To reach the next step in boosting U.S. World Cup chances, soccer must become available to low-income children throughout the country. Providing the youth to showcase their athletic abilities would tap into a market that would benefit the child, the team, the area and the sport as a whole.

Pay-to-play put a strangle on growth in the sport that is slowly being relieved. Now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal. Continued growth domestically will allow for future international success.

Immediate Expectations

Potential starting XI for the USMNT in Qatar 2022.

Pulisic and the recent victories over Mexico make it easy to fantasize about what could be in store for the USMNT.

Realistically, it is hard to expect the U.S. World Cup chances to skyrocket so quickly. If anything, the goal should not be to win, it should be to simply compete. In 2014, the United States lost in extra time to a loaded Belgium team, but they were by far the lesser team in the contest.

In Qatar 2022, qualification for the tournament should not be a goal, it should be an expectation. Likewise, advancing out of the group stage should not come as a joyous surprise. The USMNT currently sits at No. 10 in the Official FIFA Rankings, their highest since 2005 (No. 8). The other teams in the top 10 expect a quarterfinals appearance. It may be time to expect the same out of the United States.

When the United States jointly hosts the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, there is legitimate reason to be excited as a fan. With the growth of the game exploding throughout the country, the United States’ World Cup chances could be palpable.

For now, fans of the USMNT need to support the team, grow the game and encourage youth development to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves.

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  1. Turfit

    September 9, 2021 at 3:52 pm

    The biggest competition in CONCACAF is the Gold Cup. Every Gold Cup since 1991 has been hosted in the USA. In World Cup Qualifying, when we go on the road and need a tie or win, WE LOSE.

  2. rkujay

    September 9, 2021 at 3:23 pm

    Not without a good development system, such as, well…you pick it in Europe. Also the US needs to adhere to the European calendar unless we’re satisfied with a very weak representation in world footy for a country of three hundred thirty million people.

  3. OranjeBoy

    September 9, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    US needs to have at least 4-5 legit starters in the top 3-4 clubs in Europe (EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Seria A). Not substitutes, but regular starters and world class stars at the level and/or few notches above Pulisic (nothing against him as I am a big fan of his).

    For this to happen, young US kids have to ply their trade in world class academies and training facilities in Europe. As someone earlier mentioned, playing in MSL is never going to cut it at the highest level.

    See, soccer is different than the rest of the sports because the competition is infinitely higher when you are comparing kids around Europe and the entire world being born and bred for the game. it’s just completely different. You don’t just get Lionel Messi unless you have Diego Maradona as your idol. You don’t just get Ronaldo without the influence of Eusebio.

    Nothing guarantees success. It’s a slow long grind and most important thing is your history/academy/structure and your starters playing regularly in the toughest league in Europe.

    US is neither anywhere near winning the World Cup, nor they have any desire to do so. Kids are playing other sports simply because the level is just way too high to reach, unfortunately.

  4. greg

    September 9, 2021 at 12:43 pm

    @Leo at least last night he had the humility to realize how badly he messed up tactically & correct at half-time. The tell will be if he learns from this or not.

  5. Leo

    September 9, 2021 at 12:10 am

    Berhalter might be the worst manager ever but their teams always show resilience.

  6. Sean

    September 8, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    The answer to the original question is clearly no. The USMNT always ends up being a disappointment when it matters most.

  7. Ivan

    September 5, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    Why the waste of space and the click bait article such as this one?

    How about “Will US qualify for the World Cup?”

    2 draws v “powerhouses” like El Salvador and Canada, lol. If competing in European or South American qualifiers, US will never even sniff a World Cup…ever…

    Still a thousand miles away from any relevance on the global football stage. Lots of kicking and screaming, very little footballing quality…

  8. vinnie jones

    September 2, 2021 at 10:27 pm

    the national team is playing tonite and with all the cable sports channels in basic packages…the game isn’t on. how is the game ever going to attract the best athletes? if it was the USWNT the game would be on, even though it would be against one of 7 other of the usual teams snooze……

    and even more insulting mexico’s game is on one of the spanish channels

    fifa rankings have nothing to do with accuracy, it’s all about where those crooks think they can get the most cold hard cash, perferrably US$s!

  9. El jefe

    September 2, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    Pay to play has nothing to do with it in my opinion. Soccer is simply not popular in lower income urban areas and small town USA rural areas. The sport still isn’t cool in any way shape or form in those communities. Middle/ upper class suburban areas, latino heavy areas, and inner city larping hipsters (who generally dont play the sport) are the only sections of the American populous that seem to embrace the sport and I dont see that changing any time soon.

    But, if you can somehow reach poor urban inner city communities and small town USA areas then the sky is the limit as those are both gigantic untapped markets where the sport pretty much doesn’t exist and only the kids not good enough to play on the football team play soccer.. Good luck with that.

  10. Azer

    September 2, 2021 at 9:06 pm

    This reminds my when Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as the USMNT coach, a female journalist/sideline reporter from either Fox Sports or ESPN asked him if the USA will win the World Cup. Jurgen was stunned, his facial expression told you everything. I’m paraphrasing he said something like we’re a long way from that. I honestly don’t remember her name but I do remember the question she asked him. Asking will the US ever win the men’s World Cup is like asking if San Marino will ever win the Euros. No offense to San Marino of course, I’m sure it’s a beautiful place.

  11. Tony

    September 2, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    USA Has about as much chance of winning the world cup as I have of swimming from Hawaii to Los Angeles underwater. FIFA rankings mean nothing ………. So being rated 10 means absolutely nothing…Sorry

  12. Jack

    September 2, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    I hope to be wrong but USMNT won’t win a World Cup in my lifetime. Especially if the pay to play issue doesn’t get resolved as its a huge barrier just like costs of hockey equipment is a barrier in Hockey. Football and Basketball don’t have to worry about these barriers.

    Unlike the past where the USMNT struggles against Mexico, the American talent in Europe has established USA as the kings of CONCAFAF. They got 2 more steps to go in terms of beating South America and European teams before they can even dream of winning a World Cup.

    Its hard to compare MLS and NHL in terms of ratings when the NHL attracts the best players around the world while the MLS is a feeder league for the European clubs.

  13. Mercator

    September 2, 2021 at 5:42 pm

    The US will win a World Cup eventually, but not in 2026. The US is the size of Europe, in population and wealth. Even if we are half as interested in the sport, we have all the intangibles to be among the best in the world. Of countries that have not won a World Cup already, I think the US (and Holland/Portugal) would have to be the favourites to be next.

    The US is already much better as we start getting into age groups that have always had football available. It wasn’t that accessible before the 2000s, but now with the internet every kid can access it and thanks to globalization, everything gets homogenised a bit and that means Americans pick up the worlds favourite game (in the same way everyone is learning english, and watching EPL in english, because its the de facto global world language). Wait until the kids from the projects start playing football here. It’s no secret where all the best players come from…it’s much closer to a favela than suburban Pennsylvania, that’s all I will say.

  14. Leo

    September 2, 2021 at 4:36 pm

    Wrong comparison between USA and Germany. Just creating some academies is not enough. Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga are the places where all the talent is given opportunity to play at the highest level every match. USA cannot be close as long as MLS remains an average league with no relegation (hence, no pressure) and mainly irrelevant games as everything is decided in two games during play-offs. USA need to move from CONCACAF to UEFA to have a realistic chance to someday somehow win a World Cup.

  15. Ra

    September 2, 2021 at 12:04 pm

    It is the same old story. The future that never comes…
    Also, the lower income families are traditionally more inclined to American football and Basketball. It is not a matter of access to academies, but rather general interest. Brazilian soccer is a grassroots movement. They succeed despite CBF.

  16. Tony Biscaia

    September 2, 2021 at 11:02 am

    The comment “With sports like American football, basketball, baseball and hockey demonstrating what Americans can accomplish, it makes a lack of true international success mind-boggling. Perhaps the solution can be traced back to the roots in the country. Traditionally speaking, Americans value their ‘big four’ sports that command huge followings at the professional level. It is fun to watch a sport you play growing up, that cannot be denied” is based on faulty logic and known facts.

    Soccer in the USA precedes the NFL, NHL, and NBA, though maybe not MLB. For decades it has been the highest total participation in any sport, at young ages. The real problem is the media, which promotes and glamorizes the “big four’ so that they become what people talk about around the water cooler, and adults slowly lose interest because their friends are not discussing it and know very little about it. That is slowly changing as evidenced by the live crowds at many MLS venues, especially at the newer venues like Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Philadelphia, etc.

    My prediction is that as the money and possible large career payoff levels with the “big four” the best American athletes will begin to want to play soccer more end more, in part because it’s a safer sport and better for conditioning and longevity.. I could be wrong, but we’ve come a long way in the last few decades, going from a couple of rocks serving as goal to having real goalposts and nets all over the country, and it will not only continue that path but accelerate.

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