For the first time since 1986, the United States will not be participating in the men’s World Cup. We learned this a week ago when three incredible results combined to eliminate them: a loss against last-place Trinidad and Tobago, together with Panama and Honduras wins against Costa Rica and Mexico respectively. The U.S. only had to finish in the top four out of those six teams. They finished fifth.
Whatever you believe about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s prowess, this was historically improbable. Heading into the match, ESPN’s Soccer Power Index gave the U.S. only a three percent chance of elimination. You’d think, then, that the confluence of unlikely events would mean most American soccer fans would react by zooming in on the specific runs of play that contributed to the results on the final match day. They’d focus on all of those tiny, marginal factors: the Clint Dempsey strike a few inches over earns the U.S. a goal and a draw instead of clinging off the post; Panama, in its game against Costa Rica, was mistakenly awarded a goal that didn’t actually cross the line; perhaps if Bruce Arena had called up Geoff Cameron, the team’s most experienced and arguably best defender, for the critical final matches, he would have been on the field instead of the mistake-prone Omar Gonzalez who—surprise, surprise—made a critical error in the final match and scored a goal for the wrong team.
You might have supposed that little things like that, which became big things, would be the ire of the distraught U.S. fan. But you’d have been wrong.
Instead, the U.S. Soccer fan base and commentariat immediately went the complete opposite route. It turned out that missing the World Cup immediately unleashed a torrent of the deepest anxieties and angst within U.S. Soccer. They aimed high and wide, calling for, among other things, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati to resign and an immediate re-tooling of the country’s development system. The usual suspects blamed the lack of promotion and relegation in the American soccer system for the stagnating performance. Others asked the same old questions we’ve been hearing for years: Why has the program seemingly plateaued? Why isn’t the national team getting better? Why are other, smaller countries with lower GDPs succeeding in ways U.S. Soccer has not? Perhaps these rants were best represented by ESPN commentator and former U.S. player Taylor Twellman’s extended tirade, culminating in a punctuated “WHAT. ARE. WE. DOING?!”
Fair questions all around, but inquiries that would have never been made had Dempsey’s shot rung off the inside of the post and clanged in. Further, they’re simply not that relevant to the question at hand: why a fairly talented U.S. team, as far as their qualifying group went, played poorly over 10 games. The U.S. roster is inarguably more talented than Honduras and Panama, but those squads have also experienced tremendous improvements thanks to Major League Soccer, which employs many players from Central America and provides a much higher level of competition than their respective domestic leagues, which shrunk the U.S.’s margin for error during the 10 qualifying matches. In other words, the rest of CONCACAF is getting much better, thanks in part to the soccer infrastructure the United States developed. It’s an uncomfortable point when framed as problem for American soccer to solve, as it has been in recent days, because it echoes alarmist and completely false concerns about immigrants stealing American jobs or draining our schools and health care systems. Whether intentional or not, it sounds like an argument that only Americans should be allowed to benefit from the American soccer system, which raises the question: What exactly is American soccer?
This is a deceptively complex answer. One thing it is not, though, is a stadium full of white dudes bedecked in American flag paraphernalia. The most popular soccer team in the United States remains the Mexican national team. The most popular soccer league to watch on television in the United States is Liga MX, Mexico’s top tier. In order to get favorable crowds for home matches, the U.S. Soccer Federation selects the game’s location carefully. It does not, for example, host the U.S.-Mexico game in Los Angeles. In the past, it’s resorted to predominantly white cities with low Hispanic populations like Columbus, Ohio for games against Mexico. Recently, the U.S. decided to host a game against Costa Rica in Harrison, New Jersey, just outside New York City. There were lots of Costa Ricans at the game. The US lost. Those two facts are almost entirely unrelated, but that didn’t stop Bruce Arena, the U.S. head coach, from blaming the bad performance on there being too many Costa Ricans at a game, a storyline soccer blogs happily echoed.
“My issues with the placement of this World Cup qualifier have nothing to do with the ethnicity of the visiting fans,” wrote Charles Dunst of Stars and Stripes, SB Nation’s U.S. Soccer site, as he argued U.S. Soccer should schedule qualifiers in cities with low representation of certain ethnicities so they don’t attend the games, “but simply the manner in which they managed to disrupt what should’ve been a markedly pro-USMNT environment.” Dunst is all for diversity, he goes on to argue, as long as everyone cheers for the same team. It’s a fine example not just of the neoliberal definition of diversity, but a pervasive sleight of hand when talking about soccer in America: “people who watch soccer in America” becomes conflated with “people who root for U.S. Soccer.” The latter is overwhelmingly white. The former is not, and often ignored or marginalized in conversations about the growth of soccer interest in this country.
The big question many are asking now is this: Will Americans care about the World Cup now that the U.S. isn’t playing? The answer is yes. The vast majority of those who cared six months ago still care now. But more to the point, the millions upon millions of Americans who do not root for the U.S. national team—they far outnumber those who do—will still watch the World Cup. Their teams, after all, are still playing.