As a team, the U.S. may look on this tournament as a failure. After their loss to Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup, Landon Donovan said, “We are at the point where we don’t want respect. We want to win.”
But is it, as my high school players would say, an “epic fail”? The answer depends on how you define success for a world-class team. In the ways of the World Cup, there are many levels of success. A bigger question is what does this performance say about soccer in the U.S.?
First level. Did you make it to the party; better known as “qualifying”. Only 32 teams qualify for the World Cup Finals held every four years. Qualification starts two full years before the tournament. After a 40 year drought, the U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. That is six in a row. We now expect to make it to the party, and do. Success.
Second level. Advancing. The World Cup Finals is a two stage tournament. The first stage has eight groups of four teams playing round robin style to pick the sixteen teams for the second stage. The second stage is a single elimination tournament designed to pick one winner. A sweet sixteen bracket.
The team’s own expectations were expressed by Clint Dempsey quoted here in the New York Times, “It would be great to win the group, but the most important thing is to get out of the group. If we don’t get out of the group, that’s a failure.”
Before this year, the US had only made it to the second stage twice, in 1994, and in 2002. After finishing bottom of the group on 2006, some argued that the U.S. was not successful. But, this year the U.S. did make it out of the group stage, even winning it. So, I say success for this tournament!
Third level. Advancing deep into the knock out stage of the World Cup. The U.S. has only advanced to the quarterfinals once, in 2002, losing to Germany. Since the U.S. lost to Ghana on Saturday, it is safe to say that the U.S. is not a success at this level.
Overall, I would give this team a low passing grade. They did get out of their group. They played well against England, and showed great heart along the way. But, I expected more. So they pass. Certainly not an “epic fail”!
But what about the question we get every four years? How is soccer doing here in the good ole US of A? That is more complicated. I would say soccer is doing well. It is not going to knock the major league baseball off the shelves in the malls of America any time soon. But by many measures soccer is doing extremely well.
In 2009, there were about a million kids playing baseball in the United States (872,00 in Little League and 102,000 in Dizzy Dean). There were over 3 million kids playing soccer in groups affiliated with US Youth Soccer. So, soccer seems to have a numbers advantage at the youth level. That may or may not eventually lead to more fans watching.
The lack of marketing time during games used to be seen as a weakness for soccer compared to traditional American sports. No time outs means no commercials. But soccer in Europe has learned to embed advertising everywhere during the game, including the team uniforms. With TiVo and other devices, allowing us to cut out commercials, this may now be a marketing advantage for the game. That is important. Advertising is money and money improves the game.
Oddly enough, one way to measure the success of soccer in America is to consider how American players are doing outside of America. While the U.S. has its own professional league, many of our elite players seek to play on teams in Europe and South America where the level of play is considered higher than here in the U.S. Considering this, the U.S. is improving. Only three players on the U.S. squad play their professional soccer here in the States. But few of these players are starters for quality teams. So a mixed result.
Stefan Fatsis, author and sportswriter says that U.S. soccer is still a generation or two away from being considered world class. “If we define “generation” in athletes as every 10 years, I think the U.S. remains a couple of generations away from joining the elite soccer nations — England, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, et al.”
Fatsis adds, “That doesn’t mean the U.S. won’t or can’t beat those teams occasionally, as it did at the Confederations Cup last summer. But in terms of consistently performing at a high level as a team and consistently producing players who compete at an elite level in the world’s top leagues, I think we’re still a long ways away. “
Perhaps the strongest sign that soccer is on a rising path is that ESPN has fully bought in to the game. How far away can soccer be if the biggest sports promoter in the U.S. is spending more to promote the World Cup than any other event in their history? If ESPN is with you, who can be against you?
So does this latest World cup loss bode ill for the state of soccer here in the U.S.? I don’t think so. As Fatsis says, “It’s foolish to read too much into a small set of games. The evidence that [the U.S. is improving as a soccer nation] is indisputable.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Don Bettler, the boys head soccer coach at Armuchee High, is writing columns about the World Cup for the Rome News-Tribune throughout the tournament. He is also blogging about the event at RN-T.com.