The ideology of the myopic and xenophobic myths that relate to the polarizing popularity of soccer in the United States were seemingly obliterated when the United States Men’s National Team. In conjunction with ESPN, USMNT lured over twenty five million US citizens to witness USA’s famous 2-1 victory over Ghana at the uber-climatic FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014 tournament.
Ever since the German-influenced United States Men’s National Team’s gritty statement on the international stage in Brazil, a domino effect of key seasoned figures in Steven Gerrard, Kaká, Sebastian Giovinco, Frank Lampard and David Villa arrived to be unofficially appointed as the newfound messiah’s of MLS, or so the league believed.
Of all unlikely players, the MLS Golden Boot 2014 recipient was former Charlton Athletic forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls), who seemingly overachieved and performed beyond his own naturally above average ability to win in spite of then teammate Thierry Henry.
Prior to the aforementioned introduction of MLS’ Designated Players rule, David Beckham (who went to the Los Angeles Galaxy on a $32.5 million deal for five years), Thierry Henry, Jermain Defoe and a host of other superstars conditioned the mainstream media, general public, and of course themselves, that they were going to make soccer grow even further in the United States.
It has long been perennial fool’s gold for MLS franchises who opt to sign aging veterans, who are in decline, only to discover that was the chief reason as to why they departed from Europe to begin with.
Fans have been informed that soccer at large was destined to transform the nation overnight ever since three-time FIFA World Cup winner Pelé joined the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s. In defense of the Brazil legend and arguably the greatest player of all-time, Pelé was at least instrumental in using his likeness and credibility to secure both the FIFA World Cup USA 1994 and ultimately assist in the arrival of MLS becoming a reality 22 years ago.
In any metric, soccer is the most popular sport on the planet and even with the sheer popularity of the NFL many academically inclined Americans would indeed concede to the fact of soccer’s dominance internationally. Soccer is a sport of the world, and with sharing not historically always being a virtue with professional sports teams, particularly when we talk about the expansion of NBA and NFL teams overseas, we have resistance and stubbornness to a degree.
American soccer needs its own identity
The burning issue especially with MLS is that it has increasingly become British junior and Europeanesque with inauthentically cheesy European-like team names such as FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas, or British-inspired New York City FC, which has become a trend of continuity that deeply alienates the average American who sincerely longs to become a fan of MLS, or in this very instance British junior.
British-born MLS play-by-play commentator Ian Darke is a fully qualified, richly experienced and vastly knowledgeble professional sports announcer, with a very clear and rich tone to call live soccer action in the United States.
However, there is a dire need to develop a US-born soccer play-by-play announcer to narrate the live action without leaving an imprint of MLS being an imitation of domestic league’s more storied and superior. The usage of the terms kit, pitch, and nil need to be imminently replaced with familiar terminology as uniform, field and nothing in order to cater to the casual viewer.
The 2014 World Cup opens doors for U.S. soccer
With that being said, in the United States FC Barcelona and Argentina superstar, Lionel Andrés Messi, was officially documented as a more popular Google search than ‘The King of Pop’ Michael Jackson on the ‘Thriller’ legends fifth anniversary, which coincided with the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014; the Hispanic-American population alone in the United States is 50.5 million (16.3%).
Despite deep cynicism for so many years, the beautiful game was unfairly viewed in the rear view mirror as the unattractive step sister to the national pastime and obsession of baseball, football and basketball throughout the nation. Soccer was once essentially seen as – no pun intended – a minority sport associated with Mexican-American citizens, young girls and suburban soccer mom’s who live a middle class lifestyle.
Hopefully, with the nation now getting acquainted and involved with the sport – long after the rest of the world – beyond just a major international tournament every four years is a sign of the times that a major goal has been scored in the United States, notwithstanding the naivete of non-fans believing that the FIFA World Cup will be claimed by United States Men’s National Team sooner than later.
Most recently, a relatively mundane goaless affair between USMNT and Bosnia and Herzegovina exhibited the USMNT’s current transitory period and growing pains to redefine itself as a nation on the world stage; USMNT are currently ranked 25th in the FIFA World Rankings, whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina are ranked 38th in the FIFA World Rankings.
USMNT’s friendly game against Bosnia Herzegovina was a solid test against a fairly above average nation who competed at the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014. A lot of experimentation from USMNT was utilized against Bosnia and Herzegovina with a very youthful squad albeit with many players who are not necessarily accustomed to international action as of yet.
However, USMNT are heading in the right direction, irrespective of missing out on this summers FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. USMNT have effectively taken one step back in order to take an even bigger step forward for years to come. Inserting young players into the national team without being proven is quite daunting, but the time is now in order to build the future, both for USMNT and soccer’s growth and popularity in the United States.
USMNT had seemingly been holding on to the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore for too long on the international stage, year after year after year, often with not too much to show for it, especially outside of the relative success at the Gold Cup and other North American tournaments. Contrary to popular belief, MLS is not a Mickey Mouse league filled with has-been’s, never was’ and below par talent. In fact, MLS is a domestic league which is very athletic, physical and tactically more aware than it was a decade ago. MLS’ standards collectively currently could be comparable to a mid-table English Premier League team, whereas the MLS’ standards circa 2006-2007 were closer to a mid to upper table SKY BET Championship club. The improvements and standards in MLS have been made with diligence and hard-work over the course of the past decade alone.
Growth of soccer in the United States
MLS was founded in 1996, merely four years thereafter the formation of the English Premier League in the 1992-1993 season. The difference being is that soccer already had a built-in popularity in England and the England Premier League simply replaced Division One as the top tier of the soccer pyramid in England. With soccer in the United States, it was almost starting from scratch and involved and fostered a different mindset in terms of drafting players as opposed to using riches.
FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014 was a success for US soccer at large with standout TV ratings and solid performances against Portugal and Ghana, thus proving that the USMNT had come a long way in terms of tactics and technique. Since FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014, many nations have improved since then, including Costa Rica who are now ranked 27th, two places below USMNT but are competing in the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 this summer.
The USMNT’s trend of relying on seasoned players seems to be coming to a halt, for better or worse. The saddest day for USMNT will come when Dempsey either retires from international action or is forced out by USMNT. The so-so head coach transition with Jurgen Klinsmann, to Bruce Arena, to current interim Dave Sarachan did not help either as USMNT players had to become acclimated to a new system, leader and even prospect of becoming out of favor with a new head coach.
With USMNT currently seeking a full-time, credible head coach with proven credentials at the top level, Slaven Bilic is undoubtedly the man for the job. The work Slaven Bilic did with Croatia, throughout Europe and of course West Ham United has been very thorough, whilst Bilic is tactically savvy and is a master of making in-game changes, thus being a man-management motivator, both in the locker room and from the sidelines. Bilic has the resume and experience managing and coaching throughout the EPL and Europe, which can only bode well for a USMNT player such as Christian Pulisic; Pulisic is of Croatian heritage.
Dempsey, who is a star of USMNT and the Seattle Sounder, will be 35 years of age in March and although he can still play with great performance levels, intensity and spirit, it is now time to give the next generation a fine opportunity and taste of international action with USMNT.
Unmistakably, Christian Pulisic is the present and future of USMNT and is already a pivotal figure for Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund, so it is only natural to build the USMNT side around Pulisic moving forward as well as finding elegible US players in Germany, UK, Mexico and around the world who can truly make the current USMNT side even more solid, whilst also developing and selecting the best in-form US-born players in MLS and overseas.
Missing out on the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986 will indeed serve as a big boost and wake up call for USMNT, particularly when nations such as Costa Rica gain another FIFA World Cup tournament experience under their belt, which will no doubt boost Costa Rica players stock as well as confidence in Costa Rican’s playing for a big move to European club side. USMNT’s greatest performance at a FIFA World Cup came at FIFA World Cup Japan/Korea 2002, where USMNT made the Quarter-Finals.
Unlike USMNT during FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Qualification, Panama improved greatly since qualification for FIFA World Cup 2014 and their improvement should serve as a motivation for the USMNT, who had invariably become very complacent and sat back at times during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying games.
Furthermore, the United States Women’s National Team boasts three FIFA Women’s World Cup titles; their most recent triumph at FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015.
Hypothetically, continuous triumph for United States Women’s National Team will greatly change the perception, popularity and profile of the sport in the United States opposed to internationally imported MLS Designated Players, who seemingly insincerely arrive for a glorified retirement home and final payday to pad out their pension. This is coupled alongside relying on players to represent USMNT who have either overstayed their welcome or have fallen short on the biggest stage.
With USMNT watching the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 from the outside looking in for the first time in 32 years, the burning question remains – How much has MLS and soccer truly grown in the United States since FIFA World Cup 2014?
Furthermore, how much of an adverse affect will USMNT’s high-profile and well-documented absence at the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 have on the development and progression of the game throughout the country?