US Men’s Soccer: The View From Rock Bottom
By: Trever Spoja
Trinidad and Tobago. A Twin Island nation located in the Caribbean with a population of roughly 1.4 million people that 90% of U.S. citizens couldn’t even find on a map kept the United States Men’s National Team from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. The USA, a nation of 325 million and widely considered the sports powerhouse of the world was unable to even draw the lowly Trinidad and Tobago Men’s National team who had only mustered 1 win in the CONCACAF group stage. The worst part of it all though? The majority of the United States weren’t even aware we had missed qualification for the World Cup until it arrived. Some of the population found themselves searching the World Cup schedule, frantically Googling when they could tune in to watch their country compete against the soccer powerhouses of the world and cheer for a miraculous upset. Many though, didn’t even care. They may have heard from a friend, or a sports Twitter account that U.S.M.N.T disgracefully didn’t qualify and didn’t bat an eye. This is where our problem begins but most definitely is not where the blame lies.
The U.S. is globally known for their superior athletes and being highly competitive if not dominant in major sports except for a select few, most notably, soccer (baseball is the only other sport that can be argued that we are not head and shoulders above the rest). Actually, let me correct myself. Men’s soccer. Our women’s team is cream of the crop globally and has medaled in every World Cup in the history of the Women’s World Cup and won 3. So how in the world, with the U.S. being so dominant in basketball, football (although widely considered an American sport), and even the Olympics where only China consistently rivals us, can we be so bad at soccer? Well it begins here, growing up in the USA as an aspiring athlete I dreamed of play in the NBA, the NFL, and the MLB. This is exemplified by a tweet that I found this past year by ESPN who talked about the U.S. Sports Equinox, when the 4 major sports in America all play on the same day. The NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL all have a game played on one day and ESPN went crazy. HOCKEY, god damn hockey is considered a major sport league before the piss poor MLS is.
This is the status quo for the majority of American athletes and is why this is where our downfall begins. The rest of the world, especially Europe lives and breathes soccer. Our best athletes go on to play in the NBA and NFL where they can make millions in their first year. When people think of American athletes, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Odell Becham, and Tom Brady are usually the first that come to mind. Michael Bradley? Absolutely not. Josey Altidore? Hell nah. Tim Howard may be an AFTERTHOUGHT for a select few after his heroic performance against Belgium in 2014 but you see my point?
You go to Europe or South America and ask them who their best or even favorite athlete is, they’re likely to name a soccer player like Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappe, or insert countries best soccer player here. That’s the difference in the culture that begins to set apart the powerhouses like Germany, France, Spain, Argentina, and the countless other countries that are tiers above the embarrassing United States. Imagine, just for a second, if our best athletes played soccer. If LeBron James, Russel Westbrook, Odell Beckham, Alvin Kamara, and more of our other worldly athletes grew up with the passion and work ethic they have for their sport but for soccer. I think we’d have a damn good team. If they grew up in a soccer loving environment I can only imagine the potential they would have but here lies the deeper problem. Many of them wouldn’t have the opportunity to reach the realms of their soccer potential because the youth soccer system in the U.S. is a pay to play soccer country.
With our current system it is virtually impossible for our underprivileged youth to crack into the sphere of “elite” soccer in our country. It costs thousands of dollars for these kids to join these high-level clubs and travel across the country in order to play the highest level of competition. This is drastically different from other countries models that make soccer readily available for their promising youth. The saddest part of it all? Many of our best athletes in the U.S. come from below poverty line homes. LeBron grew up in single parent home with very little income that had no chance of paying the steep registration fees these youth clubs require. By no means does this say that this is why LeBron did not play soccer but this is very much the case with other families. Great athletes that want to play soccer are not easy to come by in our nation and by keeping this system in place we are only limiting our already limited options.
Here’s the bright side. We’ve hit rock bottom but now there’s nowhere to go but up. We are realizing that our current trajectory is not the path we want to be on and we have an opportunity to change it. Culture is difficult to change but with the promise of our up and coming youth who are refining and improving overseas there is an opportunity for greatness. The U.S. will be joint hosting the World Cup come 2026 and if we can field the competitive team we are capable of and put out a quality performance there is a hope to inspire the next generation to want to be apart of greatness in a sphere that we never have seen. Many things need to change but we must keep the American spirit and struggle until we see our goals achieved.