In December 2013, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, put bluntly his team’s chances at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil: “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet…Realistically, it is not possible.” Historically, the United States has not been particularly impressive as an international soccer force. Its best finish at the World Cup was third place at the inaugural tournament in 1930. Moreover, in the past six World Cup competitions, the U.S. has failed to clear the Group stage three times, with the best of their showings being a quarterfinal performance in 2002. As recently as July 2012, the team was ranked its lowest ever, 36th in the world. And yet, the team’s future and the prospects for soccer in the United States have never looked brighter.
Over the past few years, much of the team’s change can be attributed to Jürgen Klinsmann, who replaced Bob Bradley as head coach in July 2011. Klinsmann’s greatest strength as coach is his vision for the team. As Sam Borden of The New York Times finds, “In Klinsmann’s mind—and job description—the long view is always in sight.” While most Americans would judge their national team based on its upcoming performance at the World Cup, Klinsmann “knows that winning the tournament is not the only way for him to be considered a success.” Rather, his tenure will focus on young emerging players and perhaps on the search for a superstar that the national team can coalesce around. It also helps that the United States Soccer Federation has extended his contract through the 2018 World Cup, meaning that team consistency can be prioritized over the pressure to win immediately. In particular, Klinsmann will be interested in the performances of U.S. junior national teams so that the next generation of American soccer players can increase the team’s momentum in the future.
It is in part due to his attention to the future that Klinsmann made the controversial decision to cut Landon Donovan, the United States’ all-time top scorer, from the 23-man roster headed to Brazil. At 32 years old, Donovan has been dubbed “the face of American soccer for the past decade” by Tony Manfred of Business Insider. However, Donovan’s age and what Klinsmann considers his “inconsistent motivation,” ultimately kept him off the roster. The decision caused great backlash, especially because Klinsmann chose relatively unknown players, including Brad Davis and Mix Diskerud, over the veteran goal-scorer. However, according to Sam Borden of The New York Times, despite the uproar, it is clear that “the confidence Klinsmann had in making his decision is exactly what U.S. Soccer was looking for when it hired him as coach.” The Donovan decision will follow the United States’ performance as it goes through the early stages of the World Cup. Nevertheless, Klinsmann’s forward vision is precisely what the U.S. National Team needs in order to embrace long-term development.
As the U.S. National Team looks towards the future, a phenomenon is taking place in the United States that will complement Klinsmann’s focus. America is steadily experiencing the development of a “soccer culture.” While soccer is easily the most popular sport in the world, the United States has been slow to catch on. In the powerhouses of international soccer today—Brazil, Argentina, and a slew of European nations—children become enamored of the sport at a young age. They play on the street or in their backyards with the hopes of one day being the best in the world and lifting the FIFA World Cup trophy. This passion has been lacking in the United States given the popularity of sports such as football, baseball, and basketball. However, the commercial success of Major League Soccer (MLS) in particular has encouraged the emergence of a soccer culture in the United States. As Jose Garcia in The Arizona Republic put it, “Now in its 15th season, America’s major league might still be a notch or two below the leagues in Europe and South America, but its relative longevity and stability is allowing it to connect to fan bases across the country.” Soccer is now third only to basketball and baseball as the most participated youth sport in the United States and will continue to grow as its traditions engrain themselves in American culture. Interestingly, changing demographics will also propel America’s soccer culture. In fact, the nation’s Hispanic population is giving soccer a kick in the right direction. ABC News and The Washington Post conducted a poll in early June that found that only a quarter of Americans identify themselves as soccer fans, compared to 45% of Hispanic adults residing in the United States; and, according to Christopher Weiss of ABC News, “with the Hispanic share of the U.S. population growing, the sport’s success could follow.”
The United States plays its first game of the 2014 World Cup on June 16 against Ghana, a foe that knocked it out of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. As part of the “Group of Death,” it will also face Germany and Portugal, formidable opponents in their own right. Jürgen Klinsmann knows that his team faces an uphill battle in contending for the World Cup trophy, but that is fine for him. His team’s success will depend on much more than just a win.
Borden, Sam. “How Jurgen Klinsmann Plans to Make U.S. Soccer Better (and Less American).” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 4 June 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.
Garcia, Jose. “As U.S. Gains Soccer Fans, Arizona Struggles.” The Arizona Republic. Gannett Company, 27 June 2010. Web. 14 June 2014.
“History.” U.S. Soccer. U.S. Soccer, 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.
Joseph, Andrew. “U.S. Enters World Cup with Eyes Set on Future.” AZ Central. Gannett Company, 7 June 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.
Manfred, Tony. “Landon Donovan Cut From The US World Cup Team In A Shocking Move.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 22 May 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.
Weiss, Christopher. “Will Hispanics Give U.S. Soccer a Kick?” ABC News. ABC News Internet Ventures, 6 June 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.