No one missed the United States at this World Cup, and the U.S. team missed an opportunity
MOSCOW – The World Cup didn’t miss the United States. No one in Moscow was dipping hot dogs into their borscht and sipping Bud Lights as a show of sympathy. There were no Stars-and-Stripes T-shirts hidden beneath replica jerseys of teams that, you know, actually bothered to show up and take part in the tournament. Why would they? Sympathy doesn’t appear in the soccer lexicon. Every nation has suffered its share of soccer pain -- even the countries who have won the World Cup multiple times -- and there is no room left in any soccer fan’s strafed psyche for feeling sorry for anyone else. If heavyweights such as Italy, the Netherlands, Chile and Ghana weren’t going to be wept over, then the Americans weren’t either. Besides, the U.S. has a bigger, more immediate and closer-to-home problem to fix right now. Not only did the wider world not miss the Americans at the World Cup, plenty of Americans got over the initial shock far quicker than they might have expected. Television ratings would naturally have been given an upward bump by a few USA matches, but do you hear any voices suggesting that the event has been spoiled because of the farcical catalog of failure that led to the team’s qualifying exit? The last time the squad did not make the World Cup was 1986, and such was the status of stateside soccer at the time that barely anyone noticed. They noticed this time, yet while the audience was aware of the absence, any tears were shed last October, when the U.S. lost to a hopelessly out-of-form Trinidad and Tobago and got bounced. Over the past month, Americans have learned to enjoy a World Cup featuring no American team. For U.S. Soccer, that is a problem, although by no means an unfixable one. MORE: Croatia has World Cup's oddest fashion statement MORE: Can England's World Cup run really be considered a success? The issue is one of relevance. As with any group not good enough to push its way into one of the 32 spots in the field, the USA became a soccer afterthought this summer. While millions of fans from its precise target audience were consuming live games, reading and commenting about them -- and finding new players to swoon over -- the national team was out of the discussion. It now needs to earn its way back, and it is a position that won’t be automatically handed over. American soccer fans new and old cast their allegiance elsewhere this World Cup and found that the experience was just fine. Whether it is OK for a soccerphile to support another country in the first place is a matter for another debate and another time, but that’s what happened. Supporters in the U.S. glued themselves to a tournament that featured goals, drama, star power, excellence and zero American involvement and found it to their liking. Now the battle for the U.S. men’s program is to win back that emotional investment. It needs to re-earn the right to have people care. It needs to show enough emotional attachment itself to prove worthy of the emotions of the country’s sporting feelings. Christian Pulisic’s tears at the close of the qualifying campaign were heartfelt and genuine, but over the course of the previous year, there simply weren’t enough guys who cared deeply enough to perform well enough. The fight for America’s soccer soul is a thorny one. For a large portion of fans, the scrap is won by European club teams, who captivate the attention span of their American followers more than the national side ever will. Yet there is a patriotic spirit always ready to explode within the U.S., one shown during the 2010 and 2014 campaigns, but one that needs to be nurtured and rewarded and not taken for granted. It is a tough job now. Soccer only gets America’s somewhat-undivided attention once every four years, and the USA wasn’t invited to give its promotional pitch this time. Somehow, over the coming years, the national team has to find ways to get old fans re-engaged and new supporters enlisted, all while tussling for airtime with everything else going on in athletics. Because the reality is that while the U.S. has grown up as a soccer nation and is a more involved member of the global game’s community than in the past, it wasn’t missed here at all – it just missed an opportunity.