Twenty-eight years before the most humiliating day in U.S. soccer history, and 23 miles away from the spot where confidence unraveled into heartbreak, Paul Caligiuri sent a ball rippling through steamy Trinidadian air and kick-started an unprecedented international soccer ascent.
It became known as The Shot Heard ‘Round The World – a silly moniker, because nobody in the nation most affected by it even saw it, much less heard it. Or at least not many did. Not many cared. But it happened. It sent the United States to its first World Cup in 40 years. And it stimulated one of the most ambitious, far-reaching, long-term projects the sport has ever seen.
Twenty-seven years and 10 months later, the project was chugging along. Twenty-seven years and 11 months later, its main cabin burst into flames. The stench of failure spread throughout that same Trinidadian air. There was no River to Russia to provide reprieve. No silver lining. The United States men’s national team has been eliminated from the 2018 World Cup before it even began.
Before we talk about implications or ramifications or catastrophic consequences, it’s worth noting just how unfathomable a concept this is to so many American soccer fans. An entire soccer-loving generation has been reared not on the possibility of two month-long parties every four years, but on the knowledge that both will occur, and that its national teams will be invited.
It’s an under-appreciated assumption that we’ve been innocent enough to make. Indeed, it’s been a privilege. Only seven nations participated in every men’s World Cup between 1990 and 2014. Only three appeared at every men’s and women’s World Cup in that span. The U.S. was one of the three.
And because many middle-aged men and women who currently consume the sport are post-1990 converts, the vast majority of the U.S. soccer fan base has no idea what it feels like to miss a World Cup. Until now, many probably didn’t even consider the possibility.
And yet here we are, stunned, our 19-year-old national treasure in tears, our eyes welling up with him. Our plans for next summer are ruined, our nightmares realized. We are staring at 101 months between our men’s national team’s appearances at World Cups. That’s unthinkable.
It’s worth noting the foreignness of the concept, because nobody really knows what the consequences will be. Heck, a small minority of fans have argued that those consequences will be positive ones. (They are incorrect.)
But we can engage in educated speculation, and educated speculation would lead us to a pretty clear conclusion: The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup will be damaging for soccer, and particularly men’s soccer, in the United States. It will not be catastrophic or disastrous. But it will be harmful.
Soccer in America has progressed to a point where it does not need a World Cup to survive, or even to sustain long-term growth. But the beneficial offshoots of World Cups are plentiful. Missing out on them will hurt. And there are both strong theoretical claims and evidence to back that up.
If the ultimate goals are thriving professional leagues and world-class national team programs, World Cups contribute to the mission in many ways. Most importantly, they generate interest in the sport. That interest takes many shapes.
First, it inspires youth participation. Members of the current men’s national team have pinpointed 1994 as the experience that hooked them to soccer. Stars of the 2015 World Cup-winning women’s national team have spoken about the galvanizing effect of the 1999 edition. Both the ‘94 and the ‘99 tournaments were held in the U.S., but others, especially given the breadth of TV and online coverage nowadays, replicate those effects, even if to a lesser extent.
Last Friday, on the same day the senior men’s national team appeared to have secured qualification in Orlando, 21 American teenagers represented the U.S. at the Under-17 World Cup in India. As 9- and 10-year-olds, they watched Landon Donovan beat Algeria at the death in 2010. Millions of children across the country watched. And millions of children in the past have been able to point at Donovan or Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore on a TV screen and say, Hey, I want to be him someday.
Similar children – the ones who could represent the U.S. at the U-17 World Cup eight years from now, and senior World Cups thereafter – would have had Christian Pulisic to point at next summer. Now they won’t. And that’s a missed opportunity. To think that a young boy flirting with the sport could go from age 6 to age 14 without watching a U.S. men’s national team at a World Cup is slightly distressing.
The failure to qualify, therefore, will shrink future player pools. It will be detrimental to development efforts, and to the talent level and depth of future national teams. How detrimental? It’s impossible to know — again, in the modern era of U.S. soccer, this is unprecedented. It will by no means cripple the men’s national team program. But the effects probably wouldn’t be negligible either.
World Cups also propel fandom. The quadrennial spikes in interest generally subside, but the interest settles in above pre-World Cup levels. Over the past 15 years, MLS has seen its three biggest year-over-year increases in per-game attendance in 2007 (8.2 percent), 2011 (7.2 percent) and 2015 (12.6 percent). And since 2007, it has never seen a decrease of more than 2.6 percent. There are various explanations for the pattern, but men’s World Cups are surely one of them.
Fan interest, in turn, puts more money in the pockets of the organizations in charge of promoting and improving soccer in the U.S. You can levy all kinds of legitimate criticism against MLS and the United States Soccer Federation for how they reinvest the money they make. But more revenue is unequivocally good for soccer in the United States. And World Cups bring revenue.
USSF made $66.7 million in the financial year ending March 2011, up from $42.3 million the previous year, and more than the $56 million it went on to make the following year. In the financial year ending March 2015, it made $100.5 million, up from $76.6 million the year before. The 2015 Women’s World Cup contributed to another steep rise to $125.3 million in the year ending March 2016.
Interest begets money, which begets improvement, which begets more interest, and so on. Tuesday’s debacle will interrupt that cycle. The growth of the game will hit a snag.
The contrarian argument here is that failure will provoke necessary change, and that U.S. boys’ and men’s soccer will be better off in the long run because of it. But that argument implies that complacency is plaguing growth – that there is not already an understanding that things have to change.
That understanding exists. There has been an acknowledgment that the youth system is grievously flawed, and that scouting and coaching have to improve. Thousands of people are working to address those issues. The national team’s shortcomings won’t necessarily influence their work.
There are prominent examples in global soccer of failure sparking change, most notably Germany’s turn-of-the-century rethink that led to 2014 World Cup glory. But for every one of those examples, there are countless instances where failures multiply. There are also countless examples of progress in the absence of cataclysmic awakening. There is no direct and exclusive line from failure to change, much less from failure to change to success.
There are only two direct lines here. One is to a summer of enjoyment tinged with disappointment, with constant reminders of what might have been. FOX, which paid hundreds of millions of dollars to televise the event under the assumption that the USMNT would headline its coverage, will miss out on massive audiences. Those audiences will miss out on Pulisic and the Yanks. Pulisic’s rise to stardom won’t receive the platform it deserves.
The other is to the careers of the very players who failed. They’ll miss out on massive opportunities to showcase themselves to the world. They’ll miss out on exposure and contract dollars. Some, like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, will never see the world’s grandest stage again. The reputation of American soccer will also suffer significant harm.
But to be clear, the ramifications will not be the reciprocals of qualification in 1990 or hosting in 1994. Those successes gave American soccer the boost it needed. It has since grown from nascent to fragile to stable, and is still growing. Tuesday’s failure might lead to temporary stagnation. But a permanent setback?
Probably not. American soccer has graduated from adolescence. It can handle a little, or even a lot, of adversity.
– – – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.