The Men’s National Team will miss out on the world stage next year. They missed qualifying for the World Cup by losing to Trinidad and Tobago (a country with a population of 1.3 million people- you know the same amount of people that live in Dallas, Texas). All they needed to do was tie the island country, but they managed to lose 2-1. It will be the first time the US team has missed the World Cup since 1986. The wailing and gnashing of teeth occurring from the American Soccer world is terrible to behold. But, could this be the best thing to happen for the sport of soccer in the United States?
American’s take pride in their sporting prowess. They play it, they go see it, they watch it on television, they spend money on merchandise and they put their kids in it. There is a hierarchy in American sports though. Football is the king, it garners the most viewership on television and the most valuable franchises in the US are football. Basketball and Baseball follow Football. Also in the running is Hockey, Golf, Tennis, Swimming and a whole host of other Olympic sports that become very popular especially every 4 years. Now Soccer is most certainly a popular sport. But Soccer dominates the rest of the world in a way not even Football dominates in the United States.
When Forbes ranked the most valuable sports franchises two American teams topped the list, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. But the rest of the top 5 goes to Football Clubs in Europe (Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid). When looking at the highest paid athletes in the world, soccer players are first (Cristiano Ronaldo) and third (Lionel Messi). Second on the list is American basketball player LeBron James who makes $31.2 million in salary and another $55 million in endorsements. The highest paid American soccer player is Michael Bradley who makes $6.5 million. That’s not enough to crack the top 100 highest paid athletes.
Soccer does get 3 million youth participants between the ages of 5-19 (I’m just going to remind everyone that the whole country of Trinidad and Tobago has less than half that number of total people). It is the largest youth sports in the country. So how can American’s put their kids in the sport in droves yet we cannot produce a world competitive national team?
Most kids that play soccer are playing other sports at the same time. Most of these kids, when asked to choose, choose football, basketball or football. There are various reasons, but to say money and fame is not one of them is naive. American’s worship their sports heroes and those heroes have never been soccer players. But it’s this worship that may lead the letdown of missing the World Cup to the US soccer fans advantage.
American’s are going to have to admit they are not the best at everything just because they are American. There is a strong sense of national pride, especially in the sports arena. American’s love to watch the Olympics. In 2016 at Rio the Games averaged 27.5 million viewers. At its peak it was able to grab 36.3 million viewers. That was the night American swimmers, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky swam for gold. It was a Games where the US swim team dominated in a way not seen in decades.
But in 2018, when the World Cup comes around, there will be no American team to cheer for. And it might motivate the country into competing for dominance in a way mediocrity in the past has not. Soccer has shown significant growth over the last decade. FOX broadcasted The Champions League Final and was able to grab 2.2 million viewers. MLS teams are able to fill more and more stadiums. There are numerous metrics that have shown that people are talking about soccer in the United States as much as the other major sports. The popularity of soccer is growing. With the rise of streaming options and international television in individual homes, international soccer awareness (if you’d like to read a blog all about this, click here) has increased. The missing of the World Cup may be a hiccup and lose casual fans or it could do the exact opposite.
American’s individually and collectively may decide that this is the last year American soccer is viewed as the ugly step sister. The lack of a presence may produce a renewed pride in the country and the sport. It may inspire children to fill the gap and be the hero American’s want in the sport. It may motivate coaches to work harder at keeping the talented kids on the pitch. It may challenge MLS owners to invest more into their franchises to make them relevant. Losing sucks right now. But losing could bring together a nation and place them, finally, on the path to world relevance in the worlds most beloved sport.