“How will American kids know they can become great soccer players without the United States in the World Cup?” The first time I heard someone say this, it was right after the catastrophe in Trinidad that left the United States Men’s National team out of this year’s World Cup. Admittedly we were all soul searching and out of our minds a bit. I let it go.
While watching a recent World Cup game on the UCF campus where I work, I heard the above sentiment again. This time it wasn’t a pundit, but a fan of one of the foreign teams eager to appear intelligent to his friends. As I walked across campus to teach my class I couldn’t let these offhand comments go, because I don’t believe they are true.
I have some perspective on this, as I came of age as a soccer player during that empty segment of the American soccer timeline. A time after the NASL had closed up shop and before the arrival of MLS. A time when the United States National team didn’t qualify for the World Cup.
As a young player, I lacked both players to look up to and a dream path to playing the game professionally. Around age 15 I took my lanky athletic body and devoted myself to skateboarding — a sport that had more visual American professionals, like Tony Hawk, than soccer did at the time.
While I never stopped loving or playing soccer, I never played beyond the club level.
What was the reality in the late 1980s, is far from how things are today.
Young Americans playing the game have two successful and stable soccer leagues in MLS and the USL to aspire to playing in, along with the example of a significant number of Americans plying their trade overseas. Advances in technology mean a host of leagues across the globe are available on cable and streaming services. Global stars inspire local players on a daily basis through live games and millions of clips appearing on social media timelines.
It is still difficult to watch this year’s World Cup without the United States competing, and our lack of participation is disappointing for current American players. However, the doom-and-gloom predictions of a lost generation of American players is overblown. The stability of the USL and MLS and the growing respect for American players overseas provide the fuel a young player needs to know they can work hard and make their on-the-field dreams come true. Hopefully, wrapped into those dreams is a desire to lead the Stars & Stripes back onto the biggest stage.