Maybe it’s the fact that the night’s already surreal, with the American and North Korean leaders holding a historic meeting and the common bond being a 57-year-old nicknamed “The Worm” who is known for being an excellent rebounder and starring in a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme, but the dawn of this summer’s World Cup feels exceptionally dreamlike.
Let’s get some things out of the way: Even with the United States men’s national team failing to make the tournament, I’m still very excited about the World Cup. I’m leaning toward hitching my wagon to Serbia’s dark horse status, but also want to be four years’ worth of correct when it comes to Germany.
I’ve also learned you can navigate the sports version of the grieving process — acceptance is tough, but the hope part is easier — and still ride pretty high on the anger and frustration part of it all.
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Anything can happen in a World Cup. We saw that with the USMNT escaping its Group of Death in 2014 and Costa Rica doing the same, but I can’t help look at this tournament as a chance lost for both CONCACAF and the U.S.
This is subjective, and please feel free to disagree, but the domestic buzz feels minimal compared to a tournament with the United States in the field. In terms of the average sports fan, you can scream Messi or Ronaldo all you want, but the tournament is being sold here like an El Clasico with flags.
We’ve reached the point in the World Cup cycle where I worry how many kids, both fans and players, in that pivotal age bracket of 8-12 are going to potentially miss out on their formative Dos A Cero in Jeonju, or Landon Donovan versus Algeria moment.
The beauty of being a sports fan is the images and characters created by your team or nation on the biggest stages.
For Americans of my generation, we’ve seen our country in every World Cup since we were in grade school. Even tournaments where the USMNT didn’t really ring a bell, like 1994, the World Cup drew us into side stories. I remember sitting in my Uncle Jim’s living room, hoping against hope that Italy would top Brazil, and being fairly bummed when Roberto Baggio sent his effort over the bar
I also often feel compelled to point out that Baggio was the third Italian to miss, and that Italy goes out in the Round of 16 if he doesn’t equalize in the 88th minute and complete his brace against Nigeria in extra time, then scoring the winner against Spain in the quarters, and both goals against Bulgaria in the semis.
And here’s the thing: I barely cared about soccer in 1994. I didn’t start playing until high school, and didn’t fall in love with the USMNT program until qualifying for the 2002 tournament.
There’s a vivid American memory from every World Cup after ’94 for me, often in the form of a question.
1998: “Did we really just lose to Iran?”
2002: “How did the ref miss that %^&%^& handball on Frings?”
2006: “Brian McBride is really bloody”
2010: “AND DONOVAN’S SCORED, OH CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?”
2018 is gonna be anger and disbelief, a generation deprived of its World Cup from perhaps the easiest qualification format by a defiant coach, his haughty replacement, and a group of players who showed enough effort to get the job done on average once every other game.
Frankly, this probably sounds absurd to some European and South American nations considering some of the World Cup droughts, some still active. Ryan Giggs never played in one. Alfredo Di Stefano, George Weah, and Ian Rush were shut out. Even in the expanded format, current big names like Darren Fletcher, Arda Turan, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Christian Pulisic missed his first World Cup? Boo-hoo, say Austria and Wales. David Alaba will be 28 the next time he gets to attempt qualification for his first. Gareth Bale will be 31 and Aaron Ramsey 30.
Robbie Keane got one World Cup. Marcus Hahnemann went to two.
So, yeah, American soccer fans have had it pretty good. I don’t want this to read like, “my tap water in Western New York could be better” when in reality I’d welcome a full-time job of delivering fresh water to the half-globe or more where it is needed by real, true human beings (including Michigan). Rooting for Serbia because the U.S. or Wakanda didn’t qualify is an acceptable enough outcome.
The 2026 World Cup could be coming back to the United States for the second time in 32 years despite this country still just figuring out the sport’s allure. We’re fortunate in so many ways. And, frankly, there’s a very good argument to be made that the country’s federation could use the second swift kick that would come from failing to make a World Cup then blowing a World Cup hosting bid despite overwhelming stores of influence and money.
But for now, all I can think about is what we won’t have this weekend. Very few, if any, city blocks shut down for outdoor viewing party. A similar amount of beer-soaked phone videos of bar celebrations. No John Brooks canceling out Andre Ayew’s late equalizer. No Jermaine Jones rocket against Portugal. Not even a hope-giving moment from substitute Julian Green versus Belgium (Silly dual nationals).
I mean, shoot, at least when the USWNT took its step back it was just a missed medal at the Olympics, not an entire month of sadness.
The whys are myriad: A national program that got high on its own FIFA rankings supply. A divide between proponents of players playing at the highest level and those who refused to push players there because of the money it made them or their domestic clubs. No one knows if Matt Besler would’ve become the best defender in USMNT history with a move to West Ham — and we do love him for his one-club heart — but there sure is some “What if?” there.
But it’s not about the whys here. It’s about the “What ifs?”
What if the U.S. was drawn in Panama’s place, needing to get past Belgium or England, let alone Tunisia, to make another knockout round? I’m genuinely happy for Panama, even with their ghost goal being the difference, but CONCACAF would likely rather see the Yanks’ buttressing their World Cup host bid with Pulisic as poster boy.
What if the U.S. was drawn in Mexico’s place, a veritable Group of Death for Arena and his proponents to measure himself against Klinsmann and his?
Or what about Costa Rica’s spot, with Neymar’s Brazil joining underachieving Switzerland and dark horse Serbia on the docket?
What if that kid who’s choosing whether to dedicate himself to high school football, basketball, lacrosse, or soccer, doesn’t bother to get misty-eyed for the red, white, and blue because he’s going to opt to go to the Orioles because Croatia-Argentina doesn’t have any significance to him?