The numbers confirm what you already know: Americans are optimistic and believe the future is determined by one’s actions, not present situation. In the case of football in America, let’s hope that is true.
After decades of fantastic growth, the US Men’s National Team has plateaued. After a successful start as 2013 Gold Cup champions and qualification from the World Cup’s “Group of Death” in Brazil, Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign has become bogged down by poor results and team selection controversies. A disappointing elimination from the 2015 Gold Cup by Jamaica was soon followed by the frustration of being defeated by Mexico in the playoff to determine CONCACAF’s representative at the Confederations Cup. A draw with Trinidad and Tobago and loss to Guatemala have made World Cup qualification a trickier proposition than it needed to be. The US U-23 team faltered at the final obstacle and failed to defeat Columbia to qualify for the Olympics in Rio. We do have a new crest, however.
The US Women’s National Team should be a ray of light shining into this present darkness as the current World Cup champions. Instead, they highlight the cluelessness apparently endemic to football associations everywhere; it started with the team refusing to play on their own victory tour because of unsafe conditions and culminated with players filing a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation over wage discrimination. There is also the nature of some of the other legal troubles confronting the 2015 champions to add to the list of worries.
Let’s take a look at the domestic game now, shall we? Major League Soccer is in its 21st season, prompting many retrospectives now that the league is old enough to buy alcohol in the United States. Its commissioner, Don Garber, is still trotting out the objective of MLS being a top league by 2022, but as Marina Hyde wrote in the Guardian, MLS cannot be taken seriously until players stop mentioning “lifestyle” as a deciding factor for their motivation to join the league. Indeed, the emergence of the deep-pocketed Chinese Super League must be viewed with anxiety because “largest paycheck” will not be a deciding factor for players like it was for Sebastian Giovinco; MLS previously might have been able to lure players like Ramires, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Demba Ba who all moved to the Super League in the last transfer window.
If America’s top league cannot import high level players, maybe it can produce them. For a price. Player development, a drum beaten loudly and regularly by the USSF, is still largely beholden to the pay to play model. Parents of a promising 15 year old can find themselves paying about $2,400 a year for the privilege of belonging to some of these premier youth clubs, a figure that does not include uniforms,training kit, and considerable travel. Young players are customers in a $5 billion a year industry.
And yet, if one looks at the past and considers how far football has come, it’s hard for Americans not to be optimistic about the future of the game here. It’s hard for Americans not to be optimistic, full stop. Ronald Reagan said, “Today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.” It would have been difficult to believe that about football in America during his tenure as President. In 1983, there barely was a national team as they had only played two games in the last three years. The footballing landscape was so bad that the national team essentially entered the failing North American Soccer League as a club team and finished dead last.
After the nadir of the 80’s, my generation has never seen a World Cup without America’s participation; qualification is taken for granted, and the US has advanced to the knockout rounds more often than not. Klinsmann believes the US should be in 2018’s semifinals. This might sound like bravado or pie-eyed optimism, but this is coming from a man who began the overhaul of the Die Mannschaft that saw his former assistant and hand-picked successor lift the World Cup in 2014. Klinsmann’s role with the USSF is not just that of head coach; he’s also been handed the keys to the kingdom as technical director. He’s restructured the youth national teams, introduced new standards for players under 12, increased USSF’s youth development budget by 50%, added support staff positions to the national team, and implemented huge updates to coaching curriculum and education. While 2018 might come too soon to see the results of this massive overhaul, it is hard to imagine a future where the national team is not strengthened.
Indeed, some results can already be seen. Christian Pulisic, Matt Miazga, and DeAndre Yedlin are examples of a new generation in American soccer that is beginning to emerge from academies that have benefitted from Klinsmann’s reforms. Perhaps the shiniest prospect, however, is Jordan Morris of the Seattle Sounders; a product of the Seattle Sounders’ academy, he became the first amateur player called up to the national team since the 90’s. Morris is also the new poster boy of MLS after turning down Werder Bremen to join his hometown team. The success of this new crop of talent is certainly cause for optimism.
While MLS might fall short of being a top league any time soon, that does not mean it is not doing well. The fact that it is thriving after 21 years is testament to how much football has taken root in America; it has grown from 10 teams in 1996 – that it barely managed to field – to 20 teams presently with the aim of adding four more over the next four years. Attendance figures continue to grow; the Seattle Sounders’ numbers would average in the top third of the EPL and La Liga and be among the highest in Serie A. And it is not just MLS that Americans are watching. The ritual of waking up early on weekends to watch Premier League matches is no longer confined to a few diehard football supporters with outrageous cable television packages. Any Premier League match can be viewed live with a basic cable subscription or the account password of a friend willing to share [Thanks, Ben!], and viewing figures have jumped 150% in the last three years.
American optimism and belief in the Pygmalion effect will no doubt see 2016 improve after its rough start. That belief is obvious in US soccer’s signature chant (that is not “USA! USA! USA!”) in Brazil: “I believe that we will win.” The day may come when football has grown to the extent that Americans can look at their team with cynicism and roll their eyes at the “I believe” chant, but today is not that day.
This article originally appeared in Penalty Magazine