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Fallout: What the Larger Soccer World Can Expect from World Cup Failure

1 Nov, 2017

By: Michael Popke

The resignation of Bruce Arena as head coach of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team following a humiliating 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in a FIFA World Cup qualifier on Oct. 11 is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for the future of soccer in the country.

“The failure … to qualify for the World Cup — a feat it had accomplished without considerable trouble for two decades — will have severe implications for those involved in the botched campaign and a sport that has gained a growing foothold on the American sports landscape,” Steven Goff wrote in The Washington Post.

Arena is already gone, and other high-ranking individuals might soon follow. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s bottom line will be affected, too, with the loss of income it would have earned by participating in the tournament. USSF collected $10.5 million at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Goff reported — $1.5 million for participating and $9 million for advancing to the round of 16.

Fox Sports could be in a heap of hurt, too. In late September, the network revealed plans to provide 350 hours of coverage — which included more soccer matches on broadcast television than the last four World Cups combined.

According to DeadlineHollywood.com:

Team USA’s exit is a big blow to Fox, which in 2011 outbid ESPN and for English-speaking rights to the World Cup, paying $450 million-$500 million for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments — a mega markup over the last English rights deal in 2005. It had signaled that the popularity of the sport has been growing in the U.S. and was sustainable.

Fox officials put on a brave face in the wake of the stunning loss, issuing a statement that read, in part, “The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth that changes the world for one month every four years, and Fox Sports remains steadfast in our commitment of bringing the games to America for the first time in 2018 and will continue to support the U.S. Soccer Federation as they look ahead to the 2022 World Cup.”

“If you look at the interest and pageantry over the last several World Cups, it felt like Americans were really embracing our national team and looking forward to it,” David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, told The Washington Post. “There was this momentum that made you feel as though this movement was on the verge of really arriving.”

There seems to be increased interest in soccer despite (or maybe because of) the news. Soccer America Daily reports that eight of MLS's 11 games drew announced crowds above 20,000 and all matched or exceeded the home team's season average. The Sunday following the announcement, 11 games averaged 25,173, pushing the league's season average to 21,918, and putting MLS on track to break its record-high season of attendance, set in 2016.

The sports and politics analysis website fivethirtyeight.com put Team USA’s loss into perspective:

It was the worst loss in USMNT’s history based on the Elo rating system. Going into the game, Elo gave the U.S. an 83 percent chance of beating Trinidad and Tobago, making the Americans huge favorites even after accounting for the fact that they were playing on the road. Going back to 1885, the American men had never lost a match at that level when they had such a high probability of winning. And it came with all the chips on the table.

Indeed, Team USA only needed a draw against Trinidad and Tobago to advance to next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

“The United States was one of seven countries to have played in every World Cup since 1990, joining luminaries such as Germany, Brazil and Italy,” Goff wrote. “Competing in a middling soccer region of North and Central America and the Caribbean, the Americans were again heavily favored to earn one of the three automatic berths — or, at the very least, get into a playoff.”

Prior to the surprising ouster of the U.S., SportingNews.com asked “a cross section of people deeply invested in American soccer” what might happen if the U.S. failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Here is what some of them said:

  • “Playing in a World Cup, in terms of the hype beforehand, the hype during … it can electrify a nation,” said Michael Lewis, one of the country’s foremost soccer journalists. “Talking about the U.S. women’s national team, winning in Canada in 2015, we saw how that propelled the women to another level. Back in 2010, when Landon Donovan scored that goal against Algeria, any soccer fan knows where he or she was when Donovan scored that goal. It goes beyond our soccer universe; you start seeing it on major news networks. That would be a major opportunity lost.”

  • Soccer analyst Christopher Sullivan agreed. “When you don’t have an opportunity [to compete in the World Cup], a young player like Christian Pulisic — if he doesn’t go to the World Cup, well, we want to see him at 19 years old in a World Cup. We don’t want to wait until he’s 24 to play in his first World Cup,” Sullivan said. “And we have other younger players that need to be there and get that experience. For me, that’s the bigger point — it’s the lack of opportunity for these great, up-and-coming 19- to 22-year-olds that we need to have in Russia. That experience is just invaluable; it’s incredible to be able to have that for a young player. There’s nothing like it.”

  • “A lot of people … talk about how [soccer is] the millennial sport,” added Austin Berry, a defender for FC Cincinnati, the most popular team in the United Soccer League. “There’s a lot more people growing up playing it, growing up understanding it. In Cincinnati, people are more excited about what soccer has to offer. There’s a lot of our family’s friends, people who never watched a game of soccer in their lives, and they would just come to the game because they knew my parents — and they had so much fun at our home games they’re season-ticket holders now. It’s starting to click with a lot of people in a lot of different age groups.”

A lot of people sure hope Berry is correct.

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