For nearly four decades now soccer has been right around the corner as the next big thing in American sports. In the late 1970s when Pelé joined the New York Cosmos, the rise of the beautiful game was supposedly as inevitable as widespread American adoption of the metric system.
As it turned out, American football is still a game of inches, and the slower, more boring football the rest of the world enjoys is still an athletic afterthought in the United States. But in this summer of our discontent, when the country feels as divided and divisive as it has in a long time, it just might be soccer that grants us a brief reprieve.
Starting this weekend, the United States will be hosting the Copa America Centanario (one hundredth anniversary). If you’ve never heard of the Copa America, which is likely, it is the South American international soccer championship. Along with its counterpart, the European international championship, it holds a place just beneath the World Cup as the most important tournament in the sport.
So why is the United States hosting a South American soccer tournament when it is most decidedly not in South America? There are a couple of answers. The first is that unlike the Union of European Football Associations, the South American soccer federation CONMEBOL has only 10 member nations. So other nations are invited to fill out the field of 16 teams needed for the event. So CONMEBOL invited six teams from the North American soccer federation CONCACAF to participate. Don’t worry about the continental federation’s acronyms; they won’t be on the test.
That explains why the United States is participating in the Copa America, but why is it hosting the anniversary competition of an event it barely has any connection with? That goes back to Pelé in the ’70s, and the United States hosting the 1994 World Cup and the constant drumbeat of “Soccer is going to happen in America!” It’s about money. We have a lot of it. Soccer wants some. Just as the NFL flirts with Europe and the NBA flirts with China, international soccer is salivating for the American market.
America the Underdog
So, yes, this whole thing is mainly about convincing Americans to buy soccer jerseys and to watch the sport on ESPN 3. But that doesn’t mean it can’t help a weary country convinced it is falling apart at the seams. Soccer gives us, as a nation, that rare opportunity to come together and root for ourselves as an underdog.
Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s insistence that the United States “loses at everything,” most people tend to think of us as the most powerful nation on Earth. But in soccer, we are not powerful. In the last two World Cups we advanced to the knockout round. Then we lost to Ghana and Belgium. Look, we aren’t that good. We are the Rocky Balboa of soccer. But that’s what makes it great. All of our greatest international sports memories come from being the underdog.
The Miracle on Ice in 1980 was a miracle because the United States wasn’t supposed to be a hockey power. Mary Lou Retton’s gold medal resounded with glory for the same reason. Even Jesse Owens racing against Nazis in 1936 was a bolt of lightning that nobody dared expect. Starting with the American Revolution, the United States has been known for defying expectations. Maybe, just maybe, this American soccer team can bring us there again.
Can We Win?
No. Going into the last World Cup, our German coach Jurgen Klinsamann famously said his team had no chance to win. It was an odd thing for a coach, even a German one, to say. But it was true. And it’s probably true in this tournament.
Argentina with little Leo Messi, probably the best player who ever lived, should spank the U.S. team. Brazil, the greatest soccer nation on earth, won’t sweat us in the least. Even Chile and Columbia snicker at the thought of losing to our team that doesn’t even have a nickname. But that’s the point. Screw them. We are the United States, and we damn well think we have a chance. Always.
That’s why we all need to get behind this team. We need to believe it can do the impossible, as America has done time and again. We need to believe it can pull off the greatest international troll of all time by raising a major trophy in a sport we don’t even care about. Is it going to happen? Probably not. But these are the stories we love, these are the underdogs we gravitate towards, and these are the times we can come together as one.
Set Realistic Expectations
So, what counts as a win in this tournament? First and foremost is doing better than Mexico. Most people don’t know this, but Mexico is our greatest soccer rival, and we tend to lose. Surpassing Mexico in this tournament would be a great victory.
A match against Mexico could only happen in the semifinals. That would require the United States beating Brazil, or another South American powerhouse. One hope we have is that Brazil will be without its best player Neymar, who is being kept free for the Olympics.
Dig it—it’s a long shot. But not that long a shot. In the odds, the United States is only behind Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. It suggests we can win this, on our own grounds. We can make the world shudder at the thought that the United States has learned how to play soccer.
Deal With the Flaws
There is much to mock and deride in soccer. The dramatic dives that players make pretending to be injured are horrible (ahem, LeBron James). The ties are terrible. And penalty shootouts to decide championships are like a free-throw competition to win the NBA finals. The boy band haircuts also grate against the grain of a traditional American sports fan.
But let us look past all these flaws. Let us root, root, root for the home team. If we don’t win, it’s expected. But if we do, if we can, if we can defy the odds and carry home a championship, or at least do better than Mexico, then we win.
The rest of our hemisphere is coming here to embarrass us. But we have some good kids ready to play some soccer and make sure that doesn’t happen. Let’s get behind them. Let’s make sure they know we are on their team. Nobody you are voting for or voting against matters here. We should get together on this. It’s the United States against all comers. As a nation, we should be ready cheer our boys on.