Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The U.S. misses the World Cup, and maybe it needed to happen

In extra time of the 1966 World Cup final, Tofiq Bahramov – known to history as “The Russian Linesman,” though he was Azerbaijani – signaled that Geoff Hurst’s shot off the crossbar had landed behind the West German goal line. The Germans disputed it then, now and forever. A story, perhaps apocryphal, holds that Bahramov was asked on his deathbed how he knew the goal was good. “Stalingrad,” he said.

If not for Hurst’s winner, the nation that invented the sport would still be seeking its first major soccer triumph. (As is, England has gone only the past 61 years without doing much of anything.) File this truism under “D,” for “Duh”: In soccer, goals change games. Sometimes a goal changes much more.

In the span of two hours Tuesday night, four goals changed everything for U.S. soccer. Against Trinidad and Tobago, Omar Gonzalez deflected a shot past Tim Howard, the own goal putting the Americans in a hole from which they couldn’t recover. Also: Romell Quioto, who plays for Houston of the MLS, beat Mexico’s offside trap to give Honduras a 3-2 lead. Also: Panama’s Roman Torres, who plays for Seattle of the MLS, scored in the 88th minute to beat Costa Rica 2-1. Also: Panama’s first goal never crossed the line. Shades of Stalingrad.

Take away any of the above, and the U.S. is headed for Russia and the 2018 World Cup and our sudden outrage over the world’s richest nation being terrible at the world’s most popular sport would never have been triggered. (Sample reaction: Iceland, the population of which is less than half of Cobb County’s, is going … but WE’RE NOT!) Such is the power of goals. But there’s a greater truth here, one which wouldn’t have come to light if not for Tuesday’s doings.

As much as we like to congratulate ourselves as to how far U.S. soccer has come, it hasn’t come all that far. The U.S. women have won three of seven World Cups, the most recent included. The U.S. men are still living off a quarterfinal run in 2002 that ended in a 1-nil loss to Germany that featured an apparent hand ball against Torsten Frings on the goal line. (Hugh Webb, the Scottish ref, saw nothing untoward. Yorktown, maybe?)

That near-miss convinced many among us that U.S. soccer, which was coming off a last-place finish in the 1998 World Cup in France,  could play with the biggest of the big. That notion held even as our national team was ousted from the next two World Cups by Ghana. Three years ago, the Ghanaians at last overcome, the U.S. reached the round of 16 and took more gifted Belgium to extra time, losing 2-1. Yet again, we took such a loss as a positive. Yet again, we were fooled.

The Belgians could have won 5-0 had not goalkeeper Tim Howard stood, as they say in hockey, on his head. He made 16 saves, a World Cup record. The U.S. barely created a clear chance until it trailed by two goals, whereupon desperation took hold. Only on the scoreboard were the Americans anywhere close to Belgium, which is another part of soccer. Results can flatter. Results can deceive.

The best-ever U.S. soccer player is Landon Donovan, who’s the career leader in MLS goals with 145 in 340 appearances. This will sound cruel, but there aren’t many European or South American nations for which Donovan would rank among the all-time top five. He played 30 games for European clubs Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton; he scored two goals.

The next World Cup will mark the U.S. team’s first absence since 1986. We were hosts in 1994 – lost to champs-to-be Brazil 1-nil in the round of 16 – and should be again in 2026. MLS, which once occupied the thinnest of niches in our sporting landscape, has grown to 22 teams and just saw expansion Atlanta United play to a crowd of 70,425 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The average American under age 25 is more familiar with Lionel Messi, an Argentinian who plays for a team in Spain, than with Mike Trout, who’s from New Jersey and who plays baseball in Anaheim.

We as a nation are no longer unfamiliar with The Beautiful Game, but we aren’t yet very good at it. Back to Belgium: The best players on Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea – the current top three clubs in the gargantuan English Premier League – hail from a nation with a population smaller than Chicago’s.

The U.S. hasn’t stopped producing world-class athletes. Tom Brady, LeBron James and the aforementioned Trout are among the greatest ever in their respective sports. Alas, our best athletes still don’t gravitate toward soccer. The Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, who undid the U.S. in extra time three years ago, is considered the fastest big man in his sport. He’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 221 pounds. Now imagine LeBron – he’s 6-8, 250 – on a soccer pitch.

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For all of U.S. soccer’s advances in training, coaching and awareness, there remains the circle that cannot be squared: An American male knows that if he grows up to play in MLB, the NBA or the NFL, he’ll be playing at his sport’s highest level; to play in one of the world’s best soccer leagues, he’ll have to go to Europe. Jurgen Klinsmann, the German who coached the U.S. national team from 2011 through 2016, advocated that his men go across the pond to better themselves. Some Americans resented that approach. Klinsmann was dismissed last fall after losses in World Cup qualifiers to Mexico and Costa Rica. Eleven months later, here the U.S. sits, outside looking in for the first time in 31 years.

Six teams competed in the final CONCACAF hexagon. The top three – Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama – qualified for Russia. Fourth-place Honduras faces a two-leg play-in against Australia. The U.S. didn’t have to win the group to keep going. Fourth out of sixth would have sufficed. It finished fifth, ahead only of Trinidad and Tobago, which was playing for nothing Tuesday night. The Americans didn’t need to win that match to advance; they only had to keep from losing. They lost.

Yes, it was embarrassing. (As Andrew Joseph of USA Today tweeted, “It's like an entire nation blew a 28-3 lead.”) It was also the slap of reality. Simply qualifying for seven consecutive World Cups shouldn’t have been that big a deal, given that the only CONCACAF nation of soccer worth is Mexico, itself a serial underachiever. Over those seven World Cups, the U.S. rarely reached the point where it could line up against a major power and take the fight to the opponent. Usually it felt compelled to take a defensive posture and soak up pressure, which runs contrary to gung-ho American nature.

Therein was a tacit concession: Even those coaching the U.S. believed that, skill-wise, our lads simply didn’t match up. It wasn’t that the team was incapable of hanging in against one of the Euro biggies – the Americans drew with eventual champ Italy in 2006; they beat Portugal in 2002 and should have beaten it again in 2014 – but every such performance bore the whiff of a gritty underdog shackling a superior foe. The point being: Even at our soccer best, we’re still underdogs.

Of the top nine scorers in MLS, none was born in America. Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old who scored against T&T, has seven goals in 45 appearances over three seasons for Borussia Dortmund, but he’s one guy. The U.S. team failed to qualify for the past two Olympics, which now seems prophetic. Whatever seemed to be working for U.S. soccer just jumped the rails.

Which means it’s time to recalibrate. Tiny Iceland, which famously beat England in Euro 2016, has risen to soccer prominence by building indoor arenas – it’s cold and dark up there – and having one UEFA-licensed coach per every 825 residents. After finishing last in its group in Euro 2000, proud Germany launched its Extended Talent Promotion Program and threw bags of money at the problem. Today the Germans are reigning World Cup champs. Even as we admit that a massive rethink is needed, we concede that rethinking mightn’t be enough.

Soccer is bigger in the U.S. than it has ever been, but it’s still not as big as in most corners of our world. This nation doesn’t stop for a World Cup qualifier. Indeed, the T&T match didn’t have a major U.S. television carrier. (It aired on BeIn Sports and NBC Universo.) In Argentina, where the national team also faced elimination Tuesday, U2 delayed its Buenos Aires concert until after Messi notched his hat trick against Ecuador. Even Bono, never renowned for humility, knows his place on Planet Futbol.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.