World Cup Goes On, US Interest Goes Back to Nil-Nil


So where does the cause of U.S. soccer stand after Saturday’s disappointing 2-1 loss to Ghana? Let’s review:

“I bet I can name the exact moment that soccer conquered America,” wrote Jeff Z. Klein in the Voice after Cybil Shepherd cooed about how cute some of the players were on the Jay Leno show. One question, wrote Klein, “need never be asked again: will soccer catch on in America? … The question of what soccer is and whether it would ever catch on in this country has long been passed.”

That was July 26, 1994.

Let’s do some math. In four World Cup competitions, Team USA has played in 15 games and overwhelmed 3 opponents, underwhelmed 9 and whelmed 3. US teams have scored 16 goals in those 15 games and allowed 24. In the last two World Cups, our boys have been ousted by Ghana, not exactly one of the world’s soccer superpowers.

Is US soccer moving forward? In 2002 it seemed that way to many when the Americans were ousted after losing to the mighty Germans by “only” 0-1. In the July 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, Grant Wahl wrote “As difficult as reaching the World Cup’s elite eight may have been, turning the sport into a viable domestic enterprise is a far more daunting challenge … what comes next?”

What indeed? In seven World Cup matches since the loss to Germany, Team USA has won just a single game (defeating Algeria this year, 2-1). Since then, scarcely any of the major problems with US professional soccer — establishing a strong television audience, holding on to keep major stars from defecting to foreign competition, marketing their best players into household names — have been resolved. The first has been particularly daunting: as Wahl wrote eight years ago, “MLS must continue to serve as the national team’s primary feeder system if Americans are to keep improving in the World Cup.”

That has not happened and America has not improved in the World Cup. Or to put it more bluntly, no way has yet been found to lure the best and brightest athletes in the United States away from baseball, football, basketball, and tennis and into soccer. And surely by now the truth must be acknowledged: it is not the World Cup that is going to establish soccer here, it’s the success of soccer here that will establish us as a serious World Cup contender.

Lest we forget, though, the question of whether or not soccer will ever catch on in America has definitely been answered in one resounding way by the U.S. women’s team that defeated the Chinese in 1999. You’re hearing people say that Saturday’s USA-Ghana game was “the highest rated soccer match ever to feature an American team.” Nope, not by a long shot. In fact, not by more than three million. The 1999 USA-China game drew 18 million viewers to 14.9 for USA-Ghana.