Wednesday in Moscow, FIFA awarded the United States (in a joint bid with Canada and Mexico) the right to host the 2026 World Cup. The U.S. will host 60 games. The other two countries 10 each.
It was a big day for soccer in America, enough that ESPN, Fox Sports and other major media networks broke into regular programming to deliver the results … and then promptly switched back to more pressing issues like where LeBron James will play basketball next season.
As an editorial choice, this wasn’t wrong. The viewers want what they want. And while soccer has grown exponentially in the United States, this is still the United States.
We don’t get overexcited about hosting big events. We save that for winning big events.
The message for U.S. soccer is simple, even as the game moves far past niche status and irreversibly into the mainstream as a major entity. The way to fully unleash its potential, and, in turn, the national team’s potential, isn’t to nag for media attention but demand it.
That means more than just hosting the World Cup. It means winning the World Cup.
That won’t happen by 2026. The state of the U.S. men’s national team is so sorry that it failed to even qualify for the 32-team World Cup that kicks off this week in Russia. Winning it all isn’t necessary, though. Winning regularly, advancing and capturing the country’s imagination on a major international stage are vital. Then everyone will talk about you the way they do about the NFL and NBA.
That’s the goal. That should be the only goal.
The awarding of the World Cup was hailed as a potential transformative event for soccer in America.
There is truth in that sentiment, especially if profits are funneled into a different type of infrastructure — not roads and arenas, but playing fields, youth programs and paths to top training outside of the current suburban-heavy (pay and pay and pay) pay-to-play model of travel soccer.
That would all be good, but the cheerleading over the World Cup bid, or pointing to some pitches getting built, also sells short what’s already happened. This isn’t 1994. The country doesn’t need to be introduced to the sport. Soccer is big here. Real big and getting bigger, especially with young people.
Participation at the youth levels is significant. Major League Soccer has blossomed into a legitimate operation and continues to expand. The best pro leagues in the world are on television, not to mention YouTube. There’s a great video game. America continues to diversify. It’s why many middle-school hallways are littered with as many Lionel Messi kits as LeBron jerseys.
For those who aren’t interested, well, that’s their own issue. They won’t suddenly get there via lectures about the beautiful game.
Only winning can do that. For too long, however, U.S. soccer has accepted mediocrity and maintained jobs due to the public’s inaccurate belief that everything can be blamed on the fact that “our best athletes don’t play soccer.”
The United States’ cumulative win total for the 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups? Two. That’s it, two victories: a 1-0 tally over Algeria in 2010 and a 2-1 triumph over Ghana in 2014. That should have been enough to force change. Instead, U.S. soccer waited until it didn’t even reach this year’s Cup to shake things up — perhaps because it wasn’t getting lit up on those same talk shows that won’t tolerate LeBron James not winning every NBA title.
The United States doesn’t need better athletes — a LeBron for instance — to play soccer. That’s a canard. In purely athletic metrics, our players are just like everyone else’s players.
Messi, of Argentina, is 5-foot-7. Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal checks in at 175 pounds. Mo Salah of Egypt is 5-9, 157.
It’s not like the World Cup is going to be dominated by a bunch of Russell Westbrooks. The potential of those players was identified and cultivated at a young age. They weren’t sent into youth leagues full of screaming coaches and crash-and-bang kickball games. They weren’t shuffled up increasingly expensive travel programs that win, and thus thrive as private businesses, by hoarding yet not developing talent.
The beauty of soccer is that it isn’t just about who can run faster or push harder. It’s about finite skills, technical superiority and creative genius. The smart can take from the strong, but it takes years of relentless training.
The United States’ best player is Christian Pulisic, who goes about 5-8, 140 pounds. Yet while Pulisic grew up in Michigan and Pennsylvania, he hightailed it to Germany at age 16 to develop into a true player. At 19, he is one of the most promising in the world.
Just thinking we always need to be bigger and faster, and then ignoring those who don’t fit that mold, has caused countless quality players to be cast aside. Further, the engrained U.S. goal of how a successful youth athlete develops — win a state title, then get a college scholarship — runs counter to the rest of the world’s system.
The U.S. needs a full reboot, the kind that a winning run in a World Cup could deliver. That Pulisic and his path to the top aren’t on display in Russia this month (even on a mediocre U.S. squad) is the biggest loss for American soccer.
There is hope, though. There has been a partial change, enough that despite not even qualifying for this World Cup, that U.S. soccer should demand tangible success by 2022 in Qatar, let alone 2026.
The growth of MLS has created better organized academies similar to the rest of the world. European clubs have begun setting up their own travel programs with tried and true philosophies in the U.S. Technology has provided the ability for kids to watch and study the best players in the world even if they play far, far away.
The level of play with younger players is increasing. The United States’ U-17 team recently reached the quarterfinals of its World Cup. Pulisic is just getting started. Josh Sargent, 18, of Missouri, who will play in Germany and not the NCAA, could prove to be quite a running mate. The same for Tyler Adams, 19, of New York, who rose through the academy of the MLS’ New York Red Bulls and is already a starting midfielder for the club.
There’s a whole bunch of these guys.
And by 2026, they’ll be in their primes, bringing a new day in which U.S. soccer can turn heads and demand media coverage not merely by staging the games, but the old-fashioned way that never fails.
By winning something.
Anything less, and hosting the World Cup will be just hosting the World Cup.
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