“Ultimately, when we punch our ticket to Russia, none of this will matter,” Tim Howard bullishly predicted ahead of the USA’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. “We are proud. We are committed. We are determined. And we will not fail,” echoed national team manager Bruce Arena with similar sentiment. And yet the USA did fail.
All they needed was a draw on Tuesday night to qualify for their eighth successive World Cup. The above remarks reeked of arrogance, but who could blame Arena and Howard for being confident of their chances? The USA are a superpower in CONCACAF - a region they, along with Mexico, have dominated for decades. What transpired, though, was nothing short of a disaster for the American game, with a 2-1 defeat to the Hex’s bottom side halting the USA’s World Cup dream before they’d even punched their ticket to Russia, as Howard put it.
Soul-searching in light of such disappointment is natural. Indeed, there have been many rants from pundits, many calls for Arena, as well as US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, to resign from the positions. That happens in almost every country after the failure to qualify for the World Cup. But the USA’s failure is slightly different. There was more riding on their qualification.
America finds itself in something of a unique situation as a global superpower that has yet to truly embrace the world’s most popular sport. Genuine progress has been made over the past decade or two, with Major League Soccer now among the best-attended sporting leagues in North America, but the country is still in the midst of a grand development programme that, they hope, will the USA challenging at the top of the international game within the next 10 years.
At least, that was the aim before Tuesday’s result. Without the exposure the World Cup brings, thrusting football into the US mainstream for one or two months, the sport’s development could feasibly stagnate until the next World Cup in five years time. Arena’s side won’t even have another competitive game until the 2019 Gold Cup.
Indeed, no other nation on earth maintains such a difference between the mean interest in football and the interest sparked around the time of the World Cup like the USA. The World Cup is front page news in America, with thousands upon thousands packing out public parks to watch the national team’s games at the tournament. That won’t happen next summer, so what will be the knock-on effect of that?
Of course, some would argue that the USA’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is already symptomatic of a wider issue with the development of the American game. Many point to the dysfunctional relationship between US Soccer, MLS, the NASL and all the other leagues and governing bodies in between. It would seem that under their collective jurisdiction, US football isn’t progressing as it should be at this stage. Whatever they’re currently doing isn’t working.
Failure to make the World Cup will only make things harder for a footballing country that, for its undeniable progress, still has to fight against the mainstream. In hindsight, this might be the point for the American game recalibrate. Having made the last 16 of the previous two World Cups, the US national team’s trajectory was never likely to be a continuously upward one. This might give them a chance to take stock.
Right now, though, it’s difficult to see the silver lining for the storm. America won’t be caught up in World Cup fever like it was four years ago, or four years before that, and that matters.