United States failure to make 2018 World Cup to have impact beyond football pitch
Millions of Americans may choose not to watch tournament on TV, affecting revenue and popularity of game in country
It was supposed to be the evening the United States squared the circle.
They were back in Trinidad and Tobago, on the brink, their challenge to show that the nation with all the best resources has a team to match. America, remember, hopes to co-host the next - as yet unassigned - World Cup in 2026. Part of their argument will be that as party givers they will not get trampled by the guests.
Back in 1989, the US went to Trinidad for their last qualifier for the 1990 World Cup. History beckoned. They shattered Caribbean hearts with a single goal and went on to the finals in Italy, breaking an absence from World Cups that had lasted 50 years.
A bandwagon began to roll, in advance of the US's hosting of the tournament in 1994, and launching Major League Soccer (MLS), its professional league.
The situation on Tuesday meant those involved with the US Men’s National Team - or USMNT - took a glance back over two decades of building the game in the self-styled "most powerful nation on earth", and pointed out the differences.
Back in 1989, the part-timers representing the US needed a win in Trinidad. This time, the professionals of USMNT - qualifiers at the last seven World Cups - needed just a draw against a Trinidad with nothing to play for but pride.
Even defeat, had other results in Central America gone their way, would have sufficed. USMNT promptly lost 2-1, a fourth defeat in 10 matches in the second phase of Concacaf qualifying.
On a topsy-turvy night elsewhere, Panama and Honduras - in the mix to leapfrog the Americans - both came back from deficits to win. Panama reached their first-ever finals, while Honduras qualified for a play-off against Australia.
“A perfect storm,” the US captain Michael Bradley called it. “Everything that could have gone wrong did.”
USMNT went behind to an own goal and were two down at half time. Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund player, then pulled one back. Television replays suggesting Panama’s first goal in their 2-1 win over Costa Rica did not cross the goal-line are a nasty jolt of lightning in that perfect storm.
Panama, beaten 4-0 last week by the US, have staged quite a putsch. Their country has a population of four million. The US pick their best 11 from a population of 325m, some of whom can reflect on even more awkward demographic stats.
Like Panama, Iceland will go to their first World Cup. There are 1,000 Americans in the world for every Icelandic citizen.
US broadcasters now expect fewer of those millions of Americans to watch the World Cup than they anticipated when the Fox network upped their bid for the US rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to US$400m (Dh1.47 billion), against fierce auctioning from ESPN.
Without the patriotic burst of enthusiasm networks noted at Brazil 2014 - when under Jurgen Klinsmann USMNT reached the knockout stage - or even in 2002 - when the US reached the World Cup’s last eight - audiences will certainly dip below projections.
Fifa’s accountants will be unhappy at this star-spangled setback. Conquering the US market, where so many key sponsors are headquartered, has been a guiding ambition in their Zurich offices for close to 50 years.
Beyond patching up relationships with broadcast partners, the US Soccer Federation confronts a crisis. In the 28 years since that historic qualification match against Trinidad, football has become the strapping adolescent of US sports.
However, momentum has been key, and World Cups are the most effective nurturing agent for a sport wrestling to find its space in a landscape where baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey have firmer traditions in the professional sphere.
“It’s true football has never been in the forefront of sports in the States, but from the time I can remember, which starts around the 1994 World Cup, you can’t compare with how things were before then,” Bradley, who won his 140th cap in Trinidad, told this writer. “It has grown so much.”
Chiefly, that is thanks to the MLS, 21 years old, and swelled from a 10-club league to a 22-team top flight.
Yet, as Klinsmann used to stress, MLS still provides an inferior finishing school for potential internationals to the leading leagues of Europe. Klinsmann, the former Germany player and manager, wanted worldlier players and observed - as many others have - that elite US footballers have not been emerging from the country’s full diversity of backgrounds.
Klinsmann lost his job as the 2018 qualifying campaign faltered. Home losses to Mexico and Costa Rica hurt USMNT. Bruce Arena came in for a second stint as manager and had the good luck to see Pulisic, already looking like the nearest thing the US game has produced this century to a potential world-class star, maturing rapidly.
In Trinidad, Pulisic scored his seventh goal in 12 starts in this qualifying campaign. He may yet become the longed-for hero his vast nation can wrap a stars-and-stripes flag around. He is of age to light up the 2026 World Cup. But he is not enough on his own.
He will be watching Iceland and Panama from a long away next June. And many of his compatriots will now choose not to watch the tournament at all.
Updated: October 11, 2017 05:03 PM