The World Cup Is the Only Real American Underdog Story

Christian Pulisic. Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Americans love an underdog. More than anything, though, we love the delusion that we are the underdogs. This is one of the many fundamental contradictions of the national character: We demand (and believe we will perpetually hold) all the trappings and power of the Empire, but our self-perception is firmly that of the feisty, hungry rebels. We’re always on top, yet always fighting someone we’re convinced is trying to keep us down. We want to be Rudy and the Yankees, simultaneously.

This tension manifests in our national teams. One of my favorite sports quotes comes from Jack McCallum’s fantastic 2012 book Dream Team, which chronicles the 1992 Team USA men’s basketball squad that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and every other NBA superstar. This was a group so overwhelmingly good that, during a 116-48 first-round victory over Angola in the Olympic opener, Angolan players were asking their opponents for autographs during the game. After Team USA beat Croatia by 42 to win the gold medal, dream-teamer Clyde Drexler told a group of reporters, “This feels good because no one believed in us. You all didn’t believe in us. But we proved you all wrong, didn’t we?” The dream team might have been the most dominant team in sports history. And they still had to invent haters.

The fact is, we run everything, and we win at almost everything. We’re near the top of the medal count at every Olympics — and if we fall too far behind, we start lobbying the IOC to add sports we’re good at. (Our homegrown sports are constantly expanding across the globe — they played an NFL game in Germany this weekend!) If beloved, long-unstoppable teams like the U.S. Women’s National Team lose a couple of games a year, like they just did, everybody starts tearing their hair out. We’re never the underdogs. Ever.

Except in one place: men’s soccer. I have often referred to U.S. soccer fandom as being “hipster patriotism” — because it reflects precisely what Americans so often pretend they are. In no other context outside of international soccer are Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, and Denmark global powers and the U.S. a plucky upstart. For once, playing the role of underdog isn’t a pose. And this makes the team considerably more fun to cheer for. At the World Cup, which, oh yeah, kicks off this Sunday in Qatar (at the weirdest possible time on the sports calendar), the U.S. team isn’t even close to being a favorite: They’ve got the 17th-best odds to win the tournament, behind Senegal and Serbia. All told, even that’s probably being generous. (The furthest they’ve ever advanced? The semifinals in 1930, when there were only 13 teams.) But they’re back at the tournament for the first time in eight years; they’ve got a puncher’s chance in a group that includes England, Wales (Wales!), and Iran; and, more to the point, they’re up-and-comers — the sort of sleeper stock you want to get in on the ground floor of.

There’s even a redemption narrative this year. If you don’t remember the last time the USMNT made it to the World Cup, that’s totally understandable: It was a long time ago, way back in 2014, before Trump’s escalator ride, when Elon Musk could be introduced to the world via 60 Minutes, when Ye was on the cover of Vogue. The U.S. got to the group of 16 that year, highlighted by a John Brooks goal against Ghana that, now that I look back at it, and considering the disturbingly high percentage of the country that seemed to be cheering against the U.S. women’s team the last couple of years, feels like the last time everyone in this country was happy about the same thing at the same time.

Then, four years ago, the USMNT face-planted during qualifying, in a result that slowed American momentum, particularly among the “this is America’s time” caterwaulers (a group that absolutely includes me), but didn’t halt it entirely. Now, between the talented young team and the fact that our president is no longer a wannabe dictator, it feels like America’s time to shine on this particular global stage. The timing is good on multiple levels; soccer has skyrocketed in popularity in the United States, with record broadcast contracts, ever-growing television ratings, and freaking Ted Lasso showing up everywhere. The USMNT group this year positions them perfectly: underdogs against England, probably slight favorites against Wales and Iran, well situated to advance to the knockout round … which is when people really start getting excited. And though it’s very strange that a big chunk of the tournament is going up against the NFL on TV, it’ll be fun to spend part of your Black Friday cheering for the U.S. against the Brits. (2 p.m. ET, folks; find a pub near you.)

It helps, too, that the U.S. is fielding such a likable team, filled with charismatic young stars who are excelling in Europe, including Juventus’s (politically outspoken) Weston McKennie, Lille’s Timothy Weah (whose father is, uh, the president of Liberia), Arsenal’s Matt Turner (whose team is atop the Premier League right now, go Gunners), and, of course, Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, the superstar and great young hope, the face of this new generation of American players for better or worse. The team struggled a bit in its final matches of preparation for the World Cup, but there’s still plenty of reason for optimism. And at the very least, unlike last time, they’re actually here.

And they sure still look like a growth stock to me. This isn’t the aging core that failed in 2018; from the above group, only Turner is over 24, and he’s a goalkeeper. (Tim Howard was still the keeper for the USMNT at 37.) There’s more talent in the pipeline, and in four years, the U.S. (along with Canada and Mexico) will be hosting the World Cup. And it’ll be in June then, like it’s supposed to be.

The USMNT are not the favorites to win this tournament: Merely making it out of the group stage would be a victory. And that — as the Yankees and Mets, who won 99 and 101 games respectively but still felt like a massive disappointment — is an excellent place for an underdog to be. Someday, if they have more success (or even half the success of the women’s team), we will hold higher expectations for the USMNT. We’ll boo and hiss them for not winning the World Cup; we’ll blast them for letting us all down like we do with other American teams. But right now? Right now, it’s all upside. It’s good to be the underdog, and it’s nice not to have to lie to ourselves about being one. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

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The World Cup Is the Only Real American Underdog Story