In case you were not aware of it, the World Cup of soccer is taking place in Russia. Unfortunately, the United States failed to qualify for this major sporting event because we were unable to send our best squad, our Women, to get us through the qualifying rounds. Instead, we placed our hopes in the hands of our poorly run and horribly organized men who were hand tied by the likes of a stubborn German head coach and impatient fan base that was only out done by a lack of urgency by the players selected to wear the Red, White and Blue.
There have been many theories as to why a nation with over 300 million citizens was unable to put together a squad assigned to qualify in a region where our only real competition should come from Mexico, or as Sports Illustratedlabeled, America’s other team. At the end of the day, the reasons are about as many as there are talented players who should be able to be groomed to advance to the knockout phase of the tournament.
There has been a bit of a changing of the guard in Soccer at the international level. Along with our nation’s failure to qualify, the World Cup is also missing established soccer powers Italy and The Netherlands. Both nations field a passionate fan base, well set up youth soccer academies, and major talent that plays in the top leagues of the world. Americans seem to flounder despite producing youthful players playing abroad, seasoned vets with World Cup experience, and a pool of talent that includes players of a variety of ethnic backgrounds with a rich history of soccer. What we lack is a way to put all of this together in a cohesive system that should have by now been able to field a team with the talent to challenge for the tournament title.
Then there is Iceland, a nation of less than 350,000 citizens, half of which are female and where only about one-third of the male population is between the age of 20 and 35; the age of professional players around the globe. How is a nation with such a small pool of players able to put together a squad that not only qualified for the World Cup, but through the first round was talented enough to play soccer power Argentina, the home of Messi, to a draw?
The Los Angeles Unified School District has more than ten times the number of students enrolled in its schools than Iceland has people. With over 4 million citizens, many of which are from a soccer crazed background, it stands to reason the city alone should be able to field a team that could kick the butts of Iceland’s national squad. It can’t.
How do you field a national team if your player pool often dreams of representing the other nation stamped on their passport that shows dual citizenship? How do you field a team where players grow up thinking money is more important than titles? How do you field a national squad where the fan base is only interested in you every four years and does not know whether you are a top notch player or a neighbor down the street because they simply have too many other distractions in their lives?
Germany, Spain, France, and Brazil are the big four favored to make it to the semifinals of the tournament and who are regular favorites in international competitions. All have sizable populations with plenty of distractions for entertainment like we have and yet they are the best of the best in soccer on an annual basis. The difference between these soccer powers and the United States is they established a rich soccer base from the bottom up and it only grew as their populations have increased.
The United States seems to think a trickle down approach is the best plan. If you field a quality national team, the youth levels will explode. It is an approach built on American impatience, one that seems to think if you sink enough money into the top level, it will filter its way down. It does not work in economics and it sure is not working with soccer.
What lies ahead for the nation? Well, we just landed the bulk of the 2026 World Cup in a joint effort with Canada, and America’s other team so money will begin to pour in from sponsors looking to capitalize on soccer. However, if a bottom up system is not put in place, it will be a short-lived burst that will see some decent soccer on the international level which will ultimately fade away as the money dries up and the greed that is behind soccer organizations takes over.
Is this a cynical outlook? Perhaps. However, I have seen and participated in enough soccer over the course of my life to see this pattern repeat itself, dating back to the 70s and the North American Soccer League which was built on the money paid to aging stars like Pele whose best days were behind them. Youth soccer exploded, the minivan became the vehicle of choice for soccer moms, and the USA was still nowhere near a soccer power.
Today, the MLS has grown, new soccer specific stadiums are built every year, and the league is primarily known for the money it sets aside to attract aging international stars looking to make a buck without having to work as hard against talent that pales to the top leagues in Europe and South America. Our best players look to play overseas where they can be pushed to a level worthy of cup play while the best of the rest linger in the MLS or lesser leagues.
For every Landon Donovan this nation produces, the big four have hundreds developed under the guidance of their national federation which runs soccer from the youth to the professional levels. AYSO, travel ball, and private academies in our country all have their own private agendas, most of which is centered on turning out a profit and not a winner. Until we have a true soccer Czar in place with a federation where heads roll when the under 18 squad fails to show promise of future success, we will never be more than a minor threat on the international stage.
Until that time, lets enjoy the real talent levels from the likes found in true soccer powers as well as the likes of a small nation like Iceland, who, for some reason, I think will be more than a one hit wonder and a bigger threat to shine in World Cups to come than we can ever dream of.
Jim is a life long resident of California and retired school teacher with 30 years in public education. Jim earned his BA in History from CSU Chico in 1981 and his MA in Education from Azusa Pacific University in 1994. He is also the author of Teaching The Teacher: Lessons Learned From Teaching. Jim considers himself an equal opportunity pain in the ass to any political party, group, or individual who looks to profit off of hypocrisy. When he is not pointing out the conflicting words and actions of our leaders, the NFL commissioner, or humans in general, he can be found riding his bike for hours on end while pondering his next article. Jim recently moved to Camarillo, CA after being convinced to join the witness protection program.