Missing the World Cup Is Like Detention for the United States

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It’s OK to be sad. Photo: Icon Sports Wire/Corbis via Getty Images

In September 2013, in central Ohio, a bearded 20-something dressed up as George Washington stopped me as I crossed the street and began screaming in my face. “America! America!!!! Motherfuckin’ America!!!! Fuck yeah!!!!” A guy in an American flag top hat began chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Next to him, a man whose stomach threatened to explode out of his “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt banged his chest and yelped.

I’d just watched the United States’ men’s national soccer team beat Mexico dos a cero in Columbus, Ohio, to clinch a spot in the 2014 World Cup, and the mood was euphoric: It felt like your feet weren’t touching the ground. There was joy and revelry and, something in desperately short supply since, legitimate American pride.

I mean, seriously, look at these fans.

Those fans were caught up in a nationalistic fervor, but a healthy kind, even a sort of ironic kind; I later called their particular brand of fandom “hipster patriotism.” I caught on to it myself. Being an American soccer fan meant cheerful, big-throated celebrations of America, celebrations that most of its fans would never embrace in any other context, in large part because soccer was the one place left where rooting for America was an underdog stance; in soccer, America actually was the scrappy upstart we pretend to be in everything else. Rooting for it felt like a cause.

Everything changed, of course. If someone comes up to you in a George Washington costume and starts screaming right now, you should probably run. Three years later, going through this in central Ohio would be an entirely different experience altogether, surely involving Donald Trump free-associating onstage while I stood in a pen getting hissed at alongside my deep-state media colleagues. But in 2013, you’ll have to trust me when I say it was one of the most truly enjoyable experiences of my professional career.

Thursday, the 2018 World Cup kicks off, with host Russia playing Saudi Arabia (in a matchup of, uh, maybe the United States’ only allies left?), and as the 32 nations from across the world converge for their quadrennial celebration, we are reminded again that the United States was not one of them. Last October, the United States collapsed against lowly Trinidad and Tobago, losing 2–1 and failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Eight months later, all of U.S. Soccer is still reeling. It is notoriously easy to qualify for the Cup from the CONCACAF region, the United States hadn’t missed in three decades, they had the most exciting young player they’ve ever had in teenager Christian Pulisic, and they had a financial outlook that was healthier than at any other time in U.S. Soccer history. There seemed to be no way they could fumble it away.

But, in further proof that sports are simply a reflection of real life, America botched a gimme and ruined everything. I mean, Trinidad and Tobago? “I felt the same way that I felt when I woke up the morning after Election Day,” American soccer executive Kevin Payne told the Ringer. “Like my world has been unmoored, and how did it happen?”

That Ringer story from last week attempted to break down how the unthinkable did happen, and while the piece is well reported, it’s also a bit unsatisfying, particularly in the way it lays most of the blame on former coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who refused to comment to the authors and suffers accordingly. Klinsmann — a German superstar forward who retired to California and briefly became American soccer’s great hope for world-class soccer power status — had been fired almost a year before the Trinidad and Tobago loss, but to hear many U.S. players tell it, the problem was not all the games the team lost that it shouldn’t have after Klinsmann was let go, but all the changes he tried to make before then. In the Ringer story, as they have elsewhere, U.S. players fault Klinsmann for a variety of offenses having to do with his desire to “change the culture” of American soccer: pushing promising players to move overseas where they could be challenged; running out riskier attacking lineups than his predecessors, who often relied on tactical discipline to beat superior opponents; and also briefly instituting a bunch of weird New Agey California projects like team yoga and fad diets. Perhaps the most problematic was that he enlisted a number of foreign-born players with American parents, particularly ones raised in his native Germany, many of whom seemed never to settle easily into the locker room.

His most notorious move — the one, according to the story, that cost him the locker room, the 2018 World Cup bid, and ultimately his job, despite its happening before the last World Cup — was when he cut Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup roster despite his history with the USMNT and the respect he had earned from his teammates. “I don’t know anybody that agreed with that decision,” a U.S. Soccer board of directors member said. “I was furious.”

Klinsmann had his strategic shortcomings — players often complained about having to develop their own strategies as they ran out onto the field — but as ridiculous as it sounds to blame his failures on his decision to drop Donovan, the decision was telling of the larger problem: He was trying to make U.S. Soccer into a global power like European teams, but U.S. Soccer, all told, thought it was doing just fine on its own. Donovan is probably the best American soccer player ever, but, considering the U.S.’ place on the world stage, that’s sort of like being the best Miami Marlin ever. Sure, Jeff Conine was a fine player, but, you know, he’s Jeff Conine. Klinsmann wanted the U.S. to aim higher to reach where they wanted to go. But the U.S. Soccer team, executives. and players thought they were already there. They couldn’t imagine doing better than Donovan — even a past-his-prime version. And after Klinsmann was fired, they brought in Bruce Arena, an old stalwart traditionalist who had coached the national team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and once famously said, “Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.” Arena was a vote against Klinsmann and for the status quo: America can do this on its own.

Turns out, it couldn’t. Now Arena has been fired, and former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is gone, and the entire U.S. Soccer system is in shambles. A giant generational talent gap opened up between players born before 1990 — the youngest of whom, Jozy Altidore, is already on the far side of his prime years — and those born after 1996 — like the world-class Pulisic and a number of very intriguing teens. How that happened is, at the moment, a subject of heated debate. But the explanation isn’t all that complicated. The worst disaster hit U.S. Soccer because it had become bloated, entitled, self-satisfied, and lazily reactionary. Again: This sounds familiar.

So, starting this week, America’s soccer bars will be slightly more populated than they ordinarily would be but not the glorious cascades of day-drinking they would have been if the Yanks were actually playing in this thing. In the wake of the USMNT’s absence, many scribes have been coming up with rooting guides, nations to support because the U.S. isn’t there. This is tempting — I think I would go with Nigeria, only partly because of their kits — but I’m not ready to move on, myself. I tend to look at a nation like Panama, which took the U.S.’ spot, and pretend I’m watching Pulisic & Co. playing instead of them; the USMNT would play England, always a matchup with drama, and Belgium, the team that knocked us out of the 2014 Cup. I am not quite ready to let go.

The glory of the United States in the World Cup, hipster patriotism or no, is that it is truly the one thing in sports I’ve found that really does bond Americans (even if it is mostly because of the day-drinking). This highlight video of the reaction all across the country after John Brooks’s thrilling goal against Ghana in 2014 remains one of the most viscerally exciting and moving sports videos I’ve ever seen.

It’s so over the top, and I cannot resist. I’m a sucker for it every time. Thousands of fans packed into a public square in Kansas City; Americans of every stripe crowded into a Modesto, California, bar; a guy in a Raised Right Republican Party T-shirt going nuts and hugging every human he sees in College Station, Texas; some dude holding a Captain America shield bouncing around his dorm room. Everybody chanting “USA! USA! USA!” together, not ironically, not menacingly, just together. I know it’s an illusion. I know there’s no actual unity like that in this country. But it was nice, for one afternoon every four years, to get to pretend. To have an ideal to someday strive for.

Then again: That’s probably an illusion we can’t afford right now. It’s not September 2013 anymore, and we can’t fool ourselves into thinking everything’s fine and that being so outwardly pro-America can be some sort of arch, upstart position. We were probably kidding ourselves then. After all … you think that same bearded soccer dude dressed up like George Washington feels that same sort of nationalist pride, ironic or not, today? Do you think he’d want to go out and do that right now? Maybe it’s sort of a relief to not have to go through the hipster patriotism motions, knowing how much more complicated it is now … or knowing how much we were pretending it wasn’t back then? Would you really want to — would you even be able to — go cheer for an American team in Russia right now?

Maybe it’s for the best that the U.S. has missed this World Cup, that the heartwarming videoes from 2014 aren’t turned into something sinister in 2018. The United States probably doesn’t have a lot of business going out strutting on a global stage in 2018; not even our allies want to see it. Maybe it’s best, with everything else going on, that we sit a few plays out. Maybe we need to wait until 2022, or even 2026, when we’ll actually be hosting this thing — along with Mexico and Canada, the neighbors with whom we are currently conducting a very low-key sort of Cold War. Maybe we will have our ducks a little bit more in a row by then. In the meantime, maybe we need to sit on the sidelines and think about what we’ve done.

Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at will.leitch@nymag.com.

Missing the World Cup Is Detention for the United States