Twenty years can certainly change a lot in sports. Flash back 20 years from today and the United States men’s soccer team had never qualified for more than two World Cups in a row. In fact, prior to 1994, the United States only made four of the 14 World Cups.
After losing in the group stage in 1950, the United States failed to reach the World Cup again until 1990, when three losses — including a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia — quickly saw it out the door.
However, when the United States hosted the men’s World Cup in 1994, everything changed. The national team beat Colombia for the first time in history and battled Brazil, the eventual champion, admirably for 90 minutes. Soccer, previously lacking real popularity in the scene of American sports, gained a whole new generation of fans in the United States. Over 68,000 fans on average showed up to every game, still a World Cup record by over 16,000.
Fast-forward to today and soccer’s popularity in America, and the skill level of the United States men’s national team is arguably at the highest it has ever been. Major League Soccer is the fastest rising sport in popularity in America. Similarly, the men’s national team has qualified for seven straight World Cups, including three appearances in the knockout stages. In 2013, the United States men’s national team recorded 16 wins, including victories over Germany (albeit the “B” squad), Bosnia-Herzegovina and Mexico, to finish the best calendar year in its history in terms of both wins and winning percentage. Former world-class player and new coach Jurgen Klinsmann has brought winning expectations and mentality to a historically mediocre soccer nation.
This World Cup just might be the most important one in history for soccer in the United States, as fellow Daily columnist Vignesh Venkataraman touched on a few weeks ago. In 2010, avid fans and curious Americans alike tuned in as Landon Donovan pulled the United States from the grip of early elimination with his dramatic stoppage-time goal to send the United States through to the knockout stages. The past few years have only served to heighten interest since the 2010 performance with the rising popularity of the MLS, a 12-game national team winning streak, Klinsmann’s arrival and even recently the commitment of 18-year-old Bayern Munich product Julian Green to the American colors.
Soccer has long lost out on drawing some of the best American athletes to the sport, routinely being beat out by football or basketball. But with a strong performance on soccer’s biggest stage at the high point of American interest, the men’s national team could potentially change that. Mega-events like the World Cup or the Olympics or the Super Bowl in America often have profound impacts on young people’s sports interests. More eyes than ever will likely be watching this time around, giving the national team a powerful opportunity to bring soccer nearer to the top of American sports.
Despite all of this positive momentum, hopes for the 2014 World Cup took a tumble after the World Cup draw. With only two possible spots remaining for the United States, it was looking at either a relatively easy group of Belgium, Algeria and Russia, or a death group of powerhouse Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and nemesis Ghana. You know the rest.
So now that the World Cup is only 30 days away and the national team is only three days away from arriving on campus to train, it’s time to think about what needs to happen for success and what we can expect in a month.
The dooming factor from the last World Cup came in the United States’ shaky starts and, specifically, the back line’s proclivity to make a crucial error. In three of the four games, the other team struck first within the first 15 minutes of the game. Preparation and confidence will be the key to avoid falling behind early, but the defense must be able to maintain tenacity and confidence throughout the game to give the United States a chance in an offensively-gifted group.
Additionally, maintaining spells of possession will be a must for a side that lacks a superstar able to blow by defenders or create opportunities completely on his own but also lacks an established backline that has proven it can withstand a siege to play off the counter. This will fall largely upon the shoulders of Michael Bradley and whoever else accompanies him in central midfield.
In spite of the group and some of its deficiencies from the last World Cup, the United States has a tendency, simply put, to just get it done. Set pieces and a deep, experienced midfield are the greatest strengths for a team that has thrived in an underdog role in the past. At the Confederations Cup in 2009, the United States beat Spain 2-0 just a year before the Spaniards would win the World Cup and would later lead Brazil 2-0 at halftime. When the doubts are the loudest, the United States plays its best.
If the United States can survive the first 15 minutes and not allow easily avoidable goals, it has a real chance at advancing. Although Ghana may have knocked the United States out at the past two World Cups, the United States will be favored to win. Against Portugal, if the United States can prevent Ronaldo from annihilating its defense, it may realize that Portugal isn’t all that much better — while Portugal might be more talented, it doesn’t play like it. Then facing Germany, the U.S. will certainly be motivated by Klinsmann and could be playing another ‘B’ squad if Germany has already secured a berth in the knockout stage, a likely scenario.
Yes, that’s quite a few ifs. But the ramifications on what could happen as a result are huge. A berth in the knockout stage would probably bring a record number of American viewers for a soccer game. One more victory and the U.S. could face Argentina on July 4. And what would be more patriotic than rocking the red, white and blue while cheering the national team on against the world’s best player on Independence Day? The potential for soccer to rise in America from this World Cup is astronomical.
Twenty years ago, just mentioning the prospect of the United States making it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup was laughable and irrelevant. The fact that soccer has made it this far and yet still has so much potential to grow is exciting, to say the least. In the world’s most popular sport, America is rising. Twenty years from now, who knows what’s in store?
When the U.S. National Team arrives on campus to train in a few days, Michael Peterson hopes that the players will read this column and petition Klinsmann to make him head of soccer propaganda. Support Michael’s cause with an email to [email protected] and Tweet your approval to @mpetes93.