In case you didn't hear the bad news, the U.S. Men's Soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. I have some even worse news. It's your fault.
Our apathy for our men's national soccer team team is, and has been fueling its downfall for years—which only serves to make us more apathetic.
In America, we've concocted our pro sports leagues to feed our false sense of exceptionalism. We play baseball in the US and Canada for something called the World Series. Our greatest nationalist metaphor, American football, sets sports' biggest stage with something called the Super Bowl. At the end of the day, Americans end up as World Champs, no matter what. And yet, here we are, ready to cast off the team that actually represents America on the world's greatest stage: our men's national soccer team.
When it comes to the Olympics—sports that we didn't invent to be the best at—our GDP holds sway. As one of the earth's wealthier nations, U.S. ice skaters can toil away on private rinks in Wisconsin, and U.S. volleyball players can get the best physical training around. On television, we watch a carefully curated version of the competition in which a television channel (the National Broadcasting Company for chrissakes) shows us events in which we are likely to win.
But soccer is the great leveler—all you need is a ball—and we can't seem to stomach the fact that the men's team is not close to being the best at it.
Because we didn't make the World Cup, our country invariably will pay less attention to the sport after Tuesday. But here's the thing: U.S. Soccer doesn't happen every four years, like many are led to believe. This isn't the Olympics, where specialized games come together and all of a sudden, you're "really into" bobsled. The team is consistently playing and practicing, and is built on a growing league. Think of soccer in the US as your local team—it practically is. It needs your constant support in order to grow.
The heart of the problem is that our apathy directly impacts our system. Young kids aren't favoring the most competitive, most highly paid sport in the world, and it has to do with our own paper-thin national ego. Because we're not exceptional, no one cares enough to make the team exceptional. Because the sport wasn't taught to us, we don't care about it—until the World Cup rolls around. It's not like we don't have access to soccer now that practically every game is streaming online (and a lot of it is on TV too). The game itself isn't particularly complicated. And it's not like the sport doesn't have staying power—everyone else seems to stick with it. The only problem soccer has in America is our attitude.
If you keep asking why we aren't winning a World Cup like other top countries, you should also ask why streets aren't shutting down when the US plays a friendly—they do in most countries. And if you're going to argue that friendlies and Gold Cups mean nothing, and that they're just boring cash grabs, umm, do you want me to define what "sports" are for you? (Hint: they're all cash grabs where games mean nothing.)
And this is where we break the cycle of apathy. This is where the USMNT can hold a tremendous amount of appeal. As proven on Tuesday, soccer is the one place in the world where America can rightfully still call itself an underdog. Do you want the games to have meaning? How about rooting for a version of our country without the whole superpower stuff attached?
This current crop of men's players is a team built from immigrants, from children of migrant workers, from military brats that learned to ball abroad, and yes, also from the perfectly-manicured pitches of suburban New Jersey. These players toiled away at a game that's often maligned in their own country, managing something despite it all. The team makes for an accurate representation of who we are as a country, and, yes, our global failure is a part of that.
But you say you don't care because the team is bad?
We don't need to look far to find an example of live-or-die soccer fandom. Mexico is right next door. And here's where we can look to them. Mexico almost missed out on the 2014 World Cup, but that didn't cause a dip in attention—it garnered even more attention, and as the nation looked on collectively, the team pulled through and made it, and went on to have a pretty good World Cup too, advancing to the knockout rounds.
But even if they hadn't made it, Mexico would have had something else to build on: rage, disappointment, vows for revenge. The kind of collective wound you can rally around. That's what the U.S. should be feeling right now. But first, we'll have to start caring.