We all have memories of iconic events in the history of international football. Moments when the clocks stop, nations hold their breath, and we’re reminded just how special the World Cup can be.
Yet, aside from 1950’s shock win over England — one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history — the U.S. men’s team cannot look back upon such occasions.
Sure, there was the 2-0 win against Mexico in 2002 that sent the Americans into the quarterfinals for the first time in the modern era, and the late Landon Donovan goal against Algeria in 2010 that prompted exultant Americans to dream again.
But, crucially, the USMNT cannot look back upon a moment like Marco Tardelli’s frenzied, wide-eyed celebration in 1982, or Geoff Hurst’s 1966 World Cup final hat-trick.
Some might point to Tim Howard’s goalkeeping heroics at the 2014 World Cup, but it remains the case that the United States didn’t even qualify for the tournament between 1954-86.
Accustomed to heady success and undisputed clout in everything from athletics to world politics, soccer is a discipline in which the country does not reign supreme.
This, though, may be about to change.
CNN interviewed the most pre-eminent names in Major League Soccer (MLS), and everyone — from Kaka to Robbie Keane — agreed on one thing: the USMNT will one day win on the world’s biggest stage.
The growth of MLS
“Winning the World Cup is very complex for any national team,” says David Villa, a 2010 winner with Spain. “But the U.S. is doing things right, and the (domestic) league growth is helping a lot, so who knows?”
The growth of that domestic league is helping bring about a change in the perception of the U.S. as a football force. Now, according Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders, “the sky is the limit.”
“It’s only going to continue to grow,” he says. “More money’s going to be involved with it, the quality of players is going to continue to increase, and competition is just going to get better and better.”
“Hopefully one day it will be at that level that you see with some of the top leagues in Europe,” adds Dempsey, who has over 100 caps to his name and has captained his country.
A decade ago, many MLS players were having to work part-time jobs as well as playing what was then small-scale professional soccer. While European big-hitters were receiving upwards of $100,000 a week, some MLS players were on $10,000 to $20,000 a year.
But things have changed fast. Players like Italy forward Sebastian Giovinco are moving to the league in their peak, and MLS is no longer perceived as just a “retirement home” for European stars.
Villa, who once bemoaned “I can’t do this alone” after a 5-1 defeat for his New York City FC team, now welcomes an ever-rising benchmark of talent in the league.
“MLS is making a better impression on European soccer players,” the 34-year-old says. “Many of them want to be here and that will improve the league a lot.”
Giovani Dos Santos is one such player, the Mexican arriving in America from Spain’s La Liga aged just 26 and in his prime.
“A lot of good players are coming here,” Dos Santos says. “It’s big players like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard … the league is growing.”
Lampard himself agrees, with Chelsea’s all-time record scorer telling CNN: “I know from the English dressing rooms at home that everybody is talking about the MLS now.
“Maybe five, 10 years ago, that wasn’t on the radar, but it is now.”
‘Coach the Kids’
Once dismissed, soccer is now the fastest-growing sport in American high schools. The number of young players has more than doubled since 1990.
“You have to coach the kids,” Lampard says. “They have to be excited about trying to make it in the professional game.
“The (U.S.) girls don’t have a problem,” he adds. “They win most tournaments anyway. But I think for young boys here who are playing — they have to be coached very young.”
LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane, who moved to the MLS in 2011, tells CNN: “In Ireland, it’s just playing soccer and that’s it.
“I think that’s probably the difference: here they have five (sports) — you know, American football, basketball, baseball, soccer, ice hockey and who knows what else.”
The Republic of Ireland’s all-time top scorer says that needs to change, and Kaka agrees.
“The most important thing is that the youth players — American players — can grow and be the base of soccer in America,” the Brazilian says.
After all, as he puts it: “It’s a nice sport; everyone can play.”
In a 2011 poll featured on Sports Business Daily, soccer was listed as the fourth most popular sport in America — overtaking hockey and far ahead of the likes of golf and tennis.
Today, increasingly comprehensive television coverage is sustaining that interest. From Fox Sport’s Bundesliga broadcast deal to NBC’s extensive coverage of the English Premier League, U.S. networks are bringing the beautiful game directly to the people of America.
“The big TV deals being done mean fans are able to watch these games,” says Dempsey, who returned to MLS in 2013 after six years in the English Premier League.
And the trend continues on the international stage. Almost half the world tuned in to watch the 2010 World Cup final: 15.5 million of these viewers were American, up 41% from 2006. Four years later, 24.7 million Americans tuned in for the USMNT-Portugal group-stage clash in Brazil — a figure eclipsing average NBA finals viewership.
It seems Americans are finally beginning to side with Carlo Ancelotti, who once said “Football is the most important of the less important things in the world.”
“I think that’s really the key to get people involved,” Dempsey concludes. “It’s having that platform, having the game available for people to see it and maybe fall in love with it.”
But no country has a divine right to succeed.
“The world’s a big place and there are some special, special football teams out there,” says Gerrard, who — like former England teammate Lampard — never progressed beyond a World Cup quarterfinal.
For America, a population of 323 million and the world’s best facilities cannot alone guarantee football’s most coveted prize.
It’s also a question of culture, and of mindset.
Spanish philosopher Jose Antonio Marina once said that in order to teach a man you need to teach the whole tribe.
Right now, the USMNT — coached by German World Cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann since 2011 — does not have the Joga Bonito flair historically associated with Brazil, Italy’s Catenaccio defensive organization, or Spain’s tiki-taka passing game.
Such playing styles have been nurtured across generations and are deeply embedded in the way the citizens of those countries see the game.
American colleges have traditionally placed huge emphasis on the physicality of their up-and-coming athletes, and the technical side of the game has perhaps suffered as a result.
Things are improving, though.
Promising central defender Matt Miazga is at the vanguard of a new crop of young American players, and this year completed a move to English club Chelsea for around $5 million.
“I think that the men’s team have proven over the last couple of tournaments that they can compete — they have very fit guys, and they are very passionate,” says former Liverpool captain Gerrard.
“I get a feeling in amongst the LA Galaxy players that they want to be successful. It’s a bit like England at the moment — they have a lot of hard work to do, a lot of improvement to do, but they’re certainly going in the right direction.”
For Kaka, Lampard, Gerrard and company, all that remains to ponder is “When?”
Kaka: “I think one day you’re going to see the (U.S.) national team lifting the World Cup. “Maybe Qatar (in 2022) … but I hope not against Brazil!”
Robbie Keane: “They have everything in place here for this country to take off, but I wouldn’t (foresee) it for a good number of years.”
Clint Dempsey: “You’ve seen the women’s team have done it three times now, and that would be great for the men’s team. If I was ‘Back to the Future’ and knew how to travel forward (in time) in a car, then I could find out for you, but I don’t know.”
Steven Gerrard: “You know, I’m no expert on when the American team is going to peak. But I think there’s still a way to go with the USA national team and the England team to win a World Cup.”
David Villa: “It is a world power, and it will be so in football in the future. Certainly, in a not so distant future, America will have the chance of winning the World Cup.”
Frank Lampard: “If I had a crystal ball it would be great. It’s a fair while away because I think there needs to be a development of the younger talent coming through. Fifteen years, say. There you go.”