In the wake of the U.S. men's national soccer team's staggering, breathtaking, utterly incomprehensible loss to Trinidad and Tobago on the last night of World Cup qualifying -- a loss that assured they will spend next summer at home watching the World Cup like the rest of us -- there has been much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Former USMNT players are screaming on television, furious fans are calling for the heads of coach Bruce Arena and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, and the whole structure of how soccer is played and organized in this country is being openly and smartly questioned. These are all good conversations to have, and important ones, and they will all play out for us in the coming weeks and months when U.S. Soccer has all the free time it otherwise would have been using to prepare for the World Cup.
But I'm more interested in the casual fan, the one who was just waking up this morning only vaguely aware that the USMNT was even taking part in qualifying, let alone facing a must-win-or-tie game in Trinidad. Or even someone who was paying just a little bit more attention and thought the win over Panama on Friday night had gotten them in. People who just learned about Christian Pulisic from "60 Minutes" last weekend. People like, say, Jeffrey Toobin.
Why is @ussoccer so terrible? 330 million people. Every kid plays soccer. And we can't even qualify for the World Cup? Appalling.- Jeffrey Toobin (@JeffreyToobin) October 11, 2017
I have been reading the work of Jeffrey Toobin for many, many years, and I can only remember one thing he's ever written about American soccer. (It was good, too) He is not a regular commentator on the sport, or someone breaking down Bruce Arena's formations, or taking part in spirited debates about the wisdom of playing Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore together. He's just a casual sports fan who wants the U.S. to be good at soccer so he can have a distraction for his day job. This morning he is "appalled." (And getting a good dragging on Twitter for ignoring the USWNT, which, uh, has won the World Cup three times.)
We are a drive-by culture in many ways, so overwhelmed with information and misinformation and controversy and "debate" and TAEKS all day, every day, that it is nearly impossible to keep track of everything. We find ourselves increasingly in need of signature, showcase events to jolt us from our daily torpor. Sports -- daily activities that require regular viewing to understand the nuance and context of everything that is going on -- have always built to these moments, the big events where the diehards and the casual observers intersect. The most dedicated NFL fan -- the person who watches the All-22 film, reads Doug Farrar, always DVRs that "NFL Matchup" show at 4 a.m. and can list four potential free agent options for Seattle to help mend its ailing offensive line -- might get frustrated and annoyed by all the just-got-here fans who show up for the Super Bowl and suddenly have all sorts of opinions about Tom Brady and Julio Jones. But jeez, that person is still gonna watch the freaking Super Bowl. The beauty of big events like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four, the NBA Finals, the CFP Playoff title game, is that they're made for both the hardcore fan and the person only paying attention a couple of days a year. That's why they're so important: They're for everyone.
And the World Cup is the largest of all these events in terms of sheer scale. Next summer, whole countries are going to put aside everything else they are doing -- countries with profound problems, with divisions, with woes we here in America have a hard time comprehending -- to watch their national teams compete in the World Cup. Iceland. Egypt. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Panama. For a month next summer, the World Cup will be the one thing that everything on this planet will be watching, whether they like soccer or not, whether they can name a single player other than Cristiano Ronaldo. They will gather in bars, in homes, in public spaces: The glory of the World Cup is that it is collective in a way that nothing else is.
This sort of global attention lasts a month, but it seeps throughout the next four years. Much of the excitement for this USMNT team -- excitement that persisted despite a truly lousy qualifying cycle that cost the team its coach but still was forgiving enough that a win or draw against freaking Trinidad and Tobago would have gotten them in -- is still a lingering result of the joys of the World Cup four years ago, John Brooks' thrilling goal, Tim Howard's heroics against Belgium, the draw against Portugal, the sense that, for two hours anyway, everyone in this country was on the same page about something.
This was also what you saw during the USWNT World Cup in 2015, whose final remains the most-watched U.S. Soccer game in American history, men's or women's. Even if you knew nothing about Carli Lloyd or Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe, you watched those games, specifically that final, because it was fun, because it was something we could do together, because you didn't need to be a diehard fan to understand what was happening and its significance, because it's fun to have an excuse to go to a bar with your friends on a lazy summer day. And that carried over: Everybody knows Carli Lloyd now. And the 2019 Women's World Cup -- now the only real soccer tournament of any legitimate importance for America until 2022 -- has real hype as well. The tournament will be bigger here because of the last one, as will the next one after that. Every cycle that brings in more casual fans mints more diehard ones. And they'll meet again at the next World Cup.
Tuesday night's fiasco destroyed all that for the USMNT, and I'd argue that's a much bigger story this morning than "what happens to Sunil Gulati and Bruce Arena?" That collective experience is what wins converts. There are Americans, millions of them, who 10 years ago would have never even entertained the possibility of watching a soccer match. But those matches, the John Brooks match, the Landon Donovan game-saver, the Carli Lloyd chip, all those people coming together and feeling unreservedly patriotic and provincial -- in a safe, almost affable way that actually crosses over to near everyone, a thing that at last unites rather than divides -- helped to convert them, or at least introduce them to the possibility that this could be fun. Even if the U.S. would have lost all three matches in next summer's World Cup, it would have given the team exposure, that crossover event, that sustains the next four years. Or, jeez: It would have just been an excuse to day-drink with your friends on a lazy summer afternoon.
That is gone now, and it is gone for a very long time. Remember, the next World Cup after 2018 is Qatar in 2022, which, because of the insane temperatures in Qatar over the summer, will not be played until late November, which is precisely the wrong time for it to be played to maximize American attention: That is, in fact, just about as prime a sports season as you'll find. (Also, who has time to day-drink with all that holiday shopping to do?) That collective experience, that John Brooks/Carli Lloyd moment, was ripped away from us Tuesday night. There is the 2019 Women's World Cup, and then that is essentially it, summertime wise, until 2023 or 2026, both of which are so far away that they haven't even announced where those Cups will be played yet.
For all the talk of What Is Good For U.S. Soccer, the best thing is sunlight. It's getting as many people as possible to see how much fun this is, how cleansing and gratifying it can be to get together with your fellow Americans -- most of whom are different than you, with different views from you, whom you might not ever come across in any other context -- and for two hours be, at last, on the same freaking side. It's bringing that casual fan and that diehard together. It's pleasing the drive-bys. Thanks to the events of Tuesday night, that is now gone. And it's going to be gone for a very long time. It's OK to be angry today, and to want to call for the heads of everyone involved in U.S. Soccer. But mostly: It's a time to be sad, for what we missed out on, for losing something before we ever even had it. The USMNT in the World Cup is one of the most truly pleasure viewing experiences an America sports fan can have, win or lose. Now it's gone. I think, in these times, we might have needed it more than we realized. Now we'll never know.
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