America’s Missed Chance on the Global Pitch

Tim Howard is a US soccer player who captains the MLS club Colorado Rapids and plays for the US national team as a goalkeeper. Marcus L Stanley, US Navy/Wikimedia Commons


You may have never heard of Paul Caligiuri – unless, of course, you know a bit of US soccer history. Caligiuri, you see, scored the soccer equivalent of the “shot heard ’round the world” in November 1989 with an improbable goal against Trinidad and Tobago that catapulted the US national team to its first World Cup since 1950. The 1-0 US victory by a team of scrappy professional journeymen with little international experience in Port-of-Spain on that November day changed US soccer forever.


The world was changing, too, at that time. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, as did two Communist leaders in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Brazil held its first free election in 29 years. Douglas Wilder won the governor’s race in Virginia, becoming the nation’s first elected African American governor. CNN covered it all live – and the first commercial dial-up internet connection was launched.


Over the next two and a half decades, the world moved inexorably towards an interconnected web of commerce, culture, consumerism, and capital fueled by dizzying technological advances. The US government and its multinational firms rode and drove this early wave of globalization, writing the rules, setting the agenda and benefiting from the opening of markets. Globalization seemed to be a part of our destiny, whether we liked it or not.


It was fitting, therefore, that the United States became a part of the globe’s most popular sport just as globalization was gaining steam. In that 1990 World Cup, Caligiuri and his teammates faced off against perennial powerhouse, Italy, after being thrashed by Czechoslovakia. It did not look promising, but the US lost respectably 1-0, prompting Italian fans to cheer the US squad, almost saying: Welcome to the big leagues.


The big leagues, thereafter, became commonplace for men’s US soccer. The team had qualified for the past seven World Cups – until disaster struck on Tuesday. Trinidad and Tobago was once again the venue and World Cup qualification was on the line. This time, all the US team needed was a tie, and this time it was the clear favorite, and worlds apart from 1989. In quick succession, Trinidad and Tobago scored two first-half goals. The US team looked listless at first and furiously fought back, but ultimately buckled in a 2-1 loss.


The US soccer world was aghast. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated called it “the most embarrassing failure in US soccer history.” After all, a great deal has happened to US soccer since these two Trinidad bookend matches. Qualifying for the World Cup had become expected. The next step, the US soccer boosters said, was competing for top honors. Today, many of the country’s best players play in Europe or compete in a respectable US league that draws decent crowds and airs on cable sports channels.


When I was growing up in the 1980s in suburban Maryland, I played soccer on the weekends but watched the “real sports” when I got home: football, basketball, baseball. The only soccer on TV at the time was an obscure PBS weekend show called “Soccer Made in Germany” that showed week-old highlights of the German Bundesliga narrated by an old-school British broadcaster. It was the first time I heard the word “nil”.


Global soccer in 1980s America was a niche. No longer. Kids from DC to Chicago to Los Angeles sport European soccer league jerseys emblazoned with “Fly Emirates” or “Yokohama Tyres” logos, idolize stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi or support their local teams with names fashioned after UK clubs: DC United, Sporting Kansas City, or New York City FC. A soccer infrastructure of youth academies and travel teams has also sprouted. This is not 1989.


So, if the US team today has more experience, more money, more fans and better-quality players than back in 1989, what went wrong? Soccer aficionados point to a combination of poor coaching and poor leadership at the federation level, coupled with simply poor play on the field, creating a perfect storm of disaster. Bruce Arena, the US coach, fell on his sword last Friday, resigning from his post. Calls are also swirling for US Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati, who called for a “deep dive” into what went wrong, to step down, but he is resisting.


There are other issues at play. Another common lament is that youth soccer development is still too closely tied to the socio-economic position of parents: It takes parents’ time and money to join a travel team, composed of the best regional players.  If you have neither, you are out of luck. Then, there’s always this one: The US has great athletes, but they are choosing a different sport – basketball maybe, or football.


On a broader level, it is tempting, of course, in this season of “America First” and talk of walls, and with an anti-globalization mood capturing large swaths of the US public, to add this soccer loss to a perceived US retreat from the world. Last week, the Trump administration announced it is pulling the US out of UNESCO, a benign UN organization that seeks to preserve culture and heritage around the world. Forget architecture and old ruins and, while we’re at it, forget soccer, too? Isn’t that a sport played by “cosmopolitans” and immigrants?


Of course, none of this is really salient. The US men’s soccer debacle has nothing to do with politics or grand theories of globalization – and US business, by the way, is not retreating from the world nor are US travelers. The beauty of sports is that all scores are settled on the field. Iceland, a country of 330,000 people, qualified, the smallest country to ever do so. The men’s soccer team came up short for a variety of reasons as noted above (US women, on the other hand, remain perennial favorites to win it all).


The US is bidding to host the World Cup again, this time in 2026. It’s a joint bid with Mexico and Canada – a NAFTA World Cup, if you will. Insert the ironic joke here about walls and NAFTA.


As world leaders are grappling with how to handle a retreating US on the world stage, the soccer world that will gather in Russia in 2018 will do so without the US men’s squad — and the world will go on.


A version of this article was first published in the Washington Post on October 19, 2017.