It is never good to be asked a big question about the U.S. Men’s National Team after a middling loss. Last Wednesday after listening to the USMNT’s latest loss, a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Denmark, I received a text from a friend who asked a question that almost always seems to be on the tips of our tongues:
Can the USMNT win the World Cup in our lifetime?
Now to be fair to my friend he is not someone who constantly follows like myself or many of you. He is someone who watches the occasional match, mostly enjoys the camaraderie, and has not been asked this question hundreds of times before.
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For years here in the United States, the World Cup has been held as the crowning achievement of soccer. Although improved coverage of the UEFA Champions League has eroded this line of thinking somewhat, when the average person is asked what the top trophy is in soccer here in the US the World Cup trophy is named.
Nonetheless, this line of thinking that the USMNT need to win the World Cup to prove something is a bit troubling. For one, it assumes that the World Cup, which is a single elimination tournament, is the best barometer for measuring success. While it is certainly a tool, it is in the end a single elimination tournament where one match can doom a team. Does one result necessarily dictate that a team is terrible?
There is also the difficulty of winning it. Only eight teams have ever won the World Cup: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Uruguay. Since the creation of the game the tournament has only been contested 20 teams. Can we really use a tournament with that small of a sample size to fully determine who the best teams are?
Does the fact that England won the World Cup once (in their own home country, mind you) over 50 years ago mean that they are more of a World Cup power than the Netherlands, who have yet to win a World Cup? Does Spain’s decades of futility in the tournament make them less of a world power? These are the problems that come up when one particular tournament that is single elimination and played every four years.
Those countries are not great footballing countries just because they won the World Cup. Their World Cup victories are just a part of their greater footballing histories, histories that include multiple regional tournament victories, success on club level, and having developed players that everyone knows on a first-name basis. While the World Cup is important it is not the only metric that should be used to determine who the best countries are at soccer.
Rather than worrying about winning the World Cup, USMNT supporters should be more concerned about creating consistent, quality product on the field. Not every team is going to win the World Cup. However, a lot of teams can have great World Cup campaigns and spin that into success across different international and club tournaments.
Let’s use Mexico and the Netherlands as examples. Mexico have won the Gold Cup 9 times, have finished in third-place 3 times at the Copa America, and won the Gold Medal at the 2012 Olympics. Netherlands meanwhile actually won the 1988 European Championship and have finished as runners-up in the World Cup on three separate occasions. Oh and the Dutch also completely changed football with the invention of the Total Football attacking philosophy.
Now this is not to say that the USMNT should just be happy to make it the World Cup every four years. If they are in the tournament then they should do everything in their power to win every match. But there are other tournaments, other World Cups, and other markers to determine success for the USMNT and its players.
Perhaps it is our way of thinking that needs to change. Rather than focusing solely on making it to the World Cup finals, USMNT supporters should focus on getting their players onto top-level European or South American clubs, to being accepted into the Copa America on a more consistent basis, to having players play in Champions League finals.
Winning a World Cup would be nice, but there are other ways for the USMNT to be seen as a power in world soccer.