The United States Men’s Soccer Team Will (Probably) Never Win a World Cup

Take a second and put down your pom poms. Take off your stars and stripes blinders.  Yes, I know you are used to beating your chest over your favorite NFL team, checking the USA’s supremacy on the Olympic gold medal count, and watching the USA basketball team dominate inferior competition. But now, sports fans in the United States have found a new passion. It has taken much longer for us to adopt than the rest of the world; yet like most things United States fans not only expect but demand utter global reign. Sorry, Uncle Sam but that’s not how it works.

The rest of the world has possessed a deep passionate love for football (also known as soccer – bet you are not used to calling the sport by its true name) far longer than the summer fling the United States has enjoyed with its World Cup team every four years.  Casual American fans enjoy that glorious month when 32 teams play for the title of the worlds best then subsequently dump the sport like a bad girlfriend. All heads turn and stare when the tough, sexy NFL walks through the bar in the fall.

Several weeks ago, the world watched as the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) faced their toughest challenge yet, international perennial Argentina. Outmatched, the U.S. was dismantled in every facet of the game as they struggled to keep up with Lionel Messi and his friends. It was a rude awakening, but one that was a long time coming. One thing was clear: the USMNT is not even close to competing for a World Cup. Worse, they may never be.

United States Soccer has many obstacles in its way on their road to winning the World Cup. Of the 19 total World Cups and over an 80-year history, only eight countries have won. Those countries: Uruguay, Brazil, England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Argentina- all steeped in football history, tradition and, most importantly, talent.

For children in the United States, soccer starts young, usually at the youth club level or recreational level. These young players are most likely taking their first touch of the soccer ball at age 5 or 6, or even older. Kids play against other kids with a similar skill level and they strive to improve with the help of dads who have never watched a real soccer game or coaches with British accents.

Throughout my playing career in the youth system, both types of coaches at some point trained me. I have personally seen there is not a great push to develop talent of the players in this system. My greatest learning experiences came in Division III collegiate soccer, the lower end of the college ball, and by that point it was too late.

When contrasted with top football nations, the U.S. soccer system is light-years behind. Young players in any of the countries with a FIFA World Cup Trophy start touching a soccer ball before they can walk. Spain’s youth football system is considered by many to be the standard in terms of teaching psychomotor, cognitive, and tactical facets of the game that takes place at a young and impressionable age.

Furthermore, their coaches are nationally certified and have gone through extensive education in football training and child development. Spanish coaches must go through a rigorous course in order to obtain their coaching degrees or licenses. Their youth leagues require all coaches to have at least a UEFA ‘B’ license to be able to coach any age group.  The curriculum for degree entails 465 hours of classroom and field training; that amounts to over 19 days of coaching. To coach a team under 15 in the U.S., you must possess a National D license; that is 36-40 hours.

How can you expect American players to match up when their European counterparts have professionally qualified coaches at all ages? Learning is a process which builds upon itself, at a cognitive and psychomotor level. The U.S. Youth Soccer Federation is building on a shaky foundation while the best countries are building on stone.

The best leagues around the world are littered with talent, and players who are fortunate enough to be practicing and playing in them are constantly surrounded by skill. They play and practice with and against each other day in and day out thus challenging their game to improve. Iron sharpens iron, such as one footballer sharpens another.

Take a close look at the USMNT players. Most play in the MLS. The competition in the MLS is quite simply a joke compared to other country’s top-flight leagues. David Villa, who is currently the leading goal scorer in the MLS, did not make his national team in Spain. In the Euros, the Spanish side did not make it past the round of 16, losing 2-0 to Italy.

Italy also chose not to select one of the best MLS players, Sebastian Giovinco, to their Euro squad this year. Why? The competition in the MLS is simply not stiff enough. The players in this league are not challenged enough to be better. It is a league where the world’s best players go to die (and continue to dominate) while the best in the US play their peak years. There are a slew of examples of European players, like Thierry Henry and David Beckham, who can no longer compete in their respective leagues overseas, and come to the MLS to not just play, but dominate.

The MLS tries to poach players for ratings, which is not a bad thing. It is necessary to grow the game here in the States. However, there also needs to be some home grown talent, which the MLS is sorely lacking. After several failed attempts to create solid development programs, US Soccer has settled on the Developmental Academy program. Currently, there are two different age groups in this program. All MLS teams have a team as well as other regional soccer teams. These are the best young players in the country. But there is something wrong.

How can only two age groups be expected to grow generations of talent? In the Premier League each team starts at age 6. They sign players at a very young age and groom them through every age group throughout their football careers. They are taught the best way to play from this young age until they either falter or succeed and reach the highest level. The disparity between European leagues and the MLS continues to be massive. These leagues are feeders for the country’s national team. It can be hard to compete when other countries are feasting on steaks and the USMNT are being fed crumbs from the table.

The United States has won eight World Cup matches in their history. EIGHT matches. U.S. soccer fans and the media need to stop comparing ourselves to Germany, Argentina and Brazil who have won 66, 42 and 70 World Cup matches, respectively. The U.S. tends to have inflated and unrealistic ideas of their game in every measure. In football, the stars and stripes cannot touch the country on the southern border that some want to build up a wall to prevent immigration. We should be begging for their footballers! Mexico has won 14 World Cup matches, almost double the USMNT total. If we are comparing World Cup wins, the US matches up nicely against Romania (8 wins) and Paraguay (7 wins). Both of who have had less World Cup appearances than the US, demonstrating their ability to do more with less.

The United States have also benefited greatly from being one of the better teams in a relatively easy qualifying group. CONCACAF teams have never won a World Cup. Only the football meccas, Europe and South American teams have. Playing against inferior competition may make it easier to qualify, but makes it more difficult when facing a real opponent in the real tournament. Teams coming out of Europe and South America face stiff competition nearly every game in qualifying. Their teams are well refined and ready for most challenges when the big tournament is finally played.

In the World Cup itself, it is extremely hard to win games. There are no pushovers. Mostly every team is ready after being tested for 2 years of qualifying. This year was the Copa America, which had the best teams on this side of the globe competing. The USMNT did very well and won all the games they should have on their way to the semi-finals and a fourth place finish. It only makes sense that when you add the other half of the world, the United States is unable to get that far. Making it out of the group stage should be considered a success.

The lowest ranked team to ever win a world cup was 18th seed France in 1998 who held home field advantage and has always been blessed with masterful players. The USA is currently ranked 31. Lower ranked teams can make it out of the group stage and maybe even win a game in the round of 16. But, it is so rare and extremely unlikely for them to be able to then win two more games against the best teams in the world. During the most recent World Cup there were no upsets in the round of 16. Including the USMNT losing to Belgium in a hard fought, close game.

Although unlikely, the possibility of an improvement in coaching and talent in U.S. Soccer exists. This will take time, and probably several generations to develop. Spain just won their first World Cup ever 6 years ago and they have had some of the best club teams in the world for many years prior to that. The USA is not close to that level of talent, skill or coaching. Yet. USA soccer needs time to solidify a structured development program for the youth levels and foster a growing love for our own domestic product: the MLS. So let us be patient with our coaches and teams. Curb your expectation for our team while continuing to love the game of football. The seeds have already been planted, but it will take a very long time for the harvest to yield a FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Associate Contributor – Jonathan Wood

Apart from an avid football fan and player, Jon is physical therapist and freelance writer living in New York City.

Twitter @jmwoodDPT

Jonathan Wood