It may sound odd to say it but the year 1994 may have been the high-water mark for American soccer. The U.S. hosted the World Cup that year and for the first time the American public got to see the rest of the globe’s most-popular sport at its highest level. The response was electric— total and average attendance during the month-long tournament set a record that’s yet to be exceeded despite the fact that the field was expanded to 32 teams from 24 at the next go-round, in 1998.
Maybe better, the U.S. National Team, which had never qualified for the true World Series over a 32-year span (1954-86), and which fielded a semi-pro lineup and went winless when it finally made it in 1990, did far better than expected, tying Switzerland and upsetting Columbia to qualify for a round-of-16 berth and there losing to eventual-champion Brazil by a respectable score of 1-0. For a sports-proud nation that was just discovering the game of the foot, quick graduation to soccer’s highest level seemed inevitable. Hey, we’re Yanks, and when it comes to sports we can do anything we set our minds to. Right?
But here we are 22 years later and the expected improvement has not come. Yes, the U.S. did reach the Cup’s quarterfinal round in 2002, and now fields solidly professional national teams, yet we’re still on the outside looking in at the game’s elite. The national team stood 30th in the latest world rankings, just one place ahead of the Cape Verdi Islands (no kidding), and while it’s still favored to make the next World Cup, to be staged in lovely Russia in 2018, that’s not a foregone conclusion. It finished 2015 with five losses and a draw in its last eight games, and didn’t make it to an important regional tournament. A home-and-home World Cup qualifying-round series with Guatemala will be played March 25 and 29, and “should win” has become “must win.” Nothing is being taken for granted any more.
The problem isn’t that soccer hasn’t gained in popularity on these shores. Youth participation rivals that of our native sports of baseball, basketball and football, a national men’s professional league has taken root after several aborted starts and our women’s teams rule the world. But while American men now can be found on the rosters of pro leagues around the globe they still aren’t among the best players on the best teams. In brief, we’ve developed journeymen but not stars, and until that changes we’ll be soccer also-rans.
The U.S. has produced some very good players but none of first-rank quality. The best, probably, was Landon Donovan, the scoring star of the 2002, ’06 and ’10 World Cup teams. Close behind him were the goalies Brad Friedel and, later, Tim Howard, who just about singlehandedly kept U.S. hopes alive into the playoffs of 2014 Cup play. Donovan, though, never really registered on the world scale, and although Friedel and Howard had solid careers in the English Premier League both were, after all, goalies, so their glow was muted. When your team’s best player is a goalie, you’ve got a problem.
Our occasional phenoms, kids who showed preternatural skill, similarly haven’t panned out—the names of Freddie Adu and Jonathan Spector come quickest to mind. The Ghanian-born Adu, who came to the U.S. at age eight, was signed as a pro at 14 and moved to Europe at 18, but quickly plateaued there. Spector was signed as a teen by the powerful Manchester United franchise but never made the varsity.
DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Julian Green and Jordan Morris, all in their early 20s, have showed flashes of brilliance as young national-team members but have yet to develop dependable, well-rounded games. They may or may not be important parts of the current World Cup qualifying process. If they aren’t, that will leave any improvement to such veterans as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, good players but ones that don’t set the sport afire.
One reason the U.S. still lags in soccer, even after some strenuous trying, is the multiplicity of sporting options open to American kids. In most of Europe, Latin America and Africa, where soccer is supreme, any child who shows notable athletic ability is quickly funneled into the sport and heaped with all the attention and praise he needs to prosper. Here, basketball, baseball and football compete for the best, and in recent years that table has slanted so strongly toward basketball that baseball and football complain of talent deficits. What kind of soccer player would Stephen Curry have made? What kind of shortstop, for that matter?
Another reason is, perhaps perversely, the recent establishment of Major League Soccer as an American sports presence. Offering good salaries and a comfortable playing environment, the league provides employment for most U.S. National Team members, but it’s a second-tier circuit, well behind the top leagues of England, Germany, Spain and Italy, so its players don’t get whatever benefits obtain from competing against their betters. Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. National Team’s German-born coach, is engaged in a running squabble with MLS over his preference that the better American players hone their skills abroad rather than staying home. So far he’s been losing.
My view is that soccer hasn’t been part of the national consciousness long enough to have made a genetic impression on American boys, who are happy enough playing the game as children but turn to the hereditary staples of B, B and F once they reach high school age. Darwin taught us that species change in time, but the span can be long. The year 1994 was only about a generation away and it may take a couple more before our gene pool can create a Messi or a Ronaldo. As a nation we’re not long on patience, but it may be necessary here. Sorry.