I am 22 years young, and I expect the United States to win the sporting world’s most prestigious and exclusive prize before I die.
That would be the Jules Rimet Trophy, awarded to the winners of the FIFA World Cup. Only seven countries have ever hoisted it as champions. Brazil, Italy, Argentina, West Germany, England, France and brace yourselves, Uruguay (twice!)
I can already hear you questioning my sanity. Did he hit his head? Pass me some of what he's smoking. There's a fine line between optimism and blind stupidity, and you sir are not even in the same state. Fine, I expect a lot of resistance to this outrageous claim. Bring it on.
According to the CDC, the average white American male can now expect to have just a shade over 75 years on this earth. Barring something tragic and unforeseen, that gives me 53 more years. Pencil me in for a funeral in the year 2061.
Most importantly, that gives me thirteen more World Cups to enjoy. Based on how the US program has developed in the last 15 years, you can very well expect them to qualify out of CONCACAF for every single one of those thirteen tournaments.
I know the arguments that most of you are going to throw at me. The US isn’t a soccer nation, you’ll say. The US has never won a major international tournament, and the Gold Cup doesn’t count. Doesn’t matter. The US is a soccer power on the rise and will bring home some hardware before I kick the bucket.
Let’s take a look at the second argument first.
Until this summer, Spain had only won a single major tournament, the 1964 European Championships. Despite their penchant for choking in big international moments, the Spaniards seemed to be named among the favorites in every World Cup and European Championships. Now, 44 years later, they finally picked up another trophy and seem primed to grab some more.
It’s only within the last twenty years that the US has started taking on more serious international opponents. Their first stint in the Gold Cup (which does include Mexico, a pretty good team the last time I checked) was in 1989, and they’ve now won it four times.
Granted, the Gold Cup is nowhere near the same stature as the Euros, but Brazil and Colombia have competed in it a few times during the US’ successful run and Mexico is in the tournament every time. It's not like the US just beats up on nobody but Belize and Trinidad.
Want more? The US has placed third in the Confederations Cup twice, a very respectable result. That tournament includes the reigning champion from each FIFA confederation. Not a weak field by any stretch of the imagination. Even more recently, US coach Bob Bradley has shown a willingness to involve the US in CONMEBOL’s Copa America, with a field that includes Argentina and Brazil.
To become the best, you have to test yourself against the best. The US is taking care of that. Granted, they embarrassed themselves by bringing a "B" squad to the Copa America, but they'll learn. They will learn.
So now we come to the argument that fans of American football love to toss out there. The US has never been, and will never be a nation that embraces soccer.
I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you over the roar of millions of minivans delivering children and orange slices to soccer fields everywhere.
America was a terrible soccer nation between 1950 and 1990. They didn’t qualify for a single World Cup between those years. A gap of forty years between World Cup appearances is a pretty big embarrassment for the US program to keep hidden.
I don’t want to imply that the US program is without history though. The US won the first match in World Cup history, beating Belgium 3-0 in 1930. Move forward another twenty years, and the US pulled off one of the biggest upsets in international soccer history, beating a very strong England team 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup (beating England today would not be as much of an accomplishment.)
The US program has history, but none of it took place during those 40 years. So what? England didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 and The Netherlands didn’t qualify for World Cup 2002. International soccer is a tough game, sometimes even the best teams slip up in qualifying.
The US is finally starting to embrace the beautiful game, though. The first seeds were sown with Pele and the NASL back in the 1970s. Even though soccer lay dormant in this country when the NASL folded, it came back with the founding of MLS and World Cup 1994.
The US advanced to the knockout rounds of World Cup 1994 on its own turf (thanks to an own-goal that cost a Colombian his life, and an incredibly weak group, but still…) After the tournament, the nation had a new, smartly-run domestic soccer league to follow in MLS.
While attendance figures started out low for MLS, they’re now starting to catch up with some of the better leagues in Europe. In 2007, MLS averaged 16,770 fans per game. In comparison, the English Coca-Cola Championship averaged 17,022, the Dutch Eredivisie averaged 18,732 and French Ligue 1 averaged 21,817. The numbers don’t lie; Americans are starting to embrace the game.
Consider the attendance in context. MLS' quality is far below that of Serie A and Ligue 1. Just wait until it starts to catch up.
Gold Cup success and rising MLS attendance figures are nice, but they are going to be secondary reasons for success when all is said and done. What am I talking about? Project 2010.
Project 2010 was started by the US Soccer Federation with the help of Carlos Quieroz. Yes, the same Carlos Quieroz who now coaches the Portuguese National Team. The aim of the project was to make the US into a serious contender for the 2010 World Cup title.
While that title will probably be taken by Spain or Argentina, the program has accomplished a few things of note. First, it established Generation Adidas, which identifies good US talents at a young age, and encourages them to make the leap to MLS.
Some players who have gone through the program are Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, Maurice Edu, and Michael Bradley. And we can’t forget Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu. What do these six have in common? They all made it to the US National Team, and they are all playing in top flight leagues in Europe.
Project 2010 also established the famous U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida. Notable graduates include Beasley, Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Altidore, and Jonathan Spector. Recognize any of those names?
The most important thing for a World Cup winner is a commitment to developing young talent. You see it in Brazil, Argentina and Italy. Those three countries have combined to win eleven World Cup titles.
With its two major youth development programs, the US is on track to become a major player in the soccer world in the coming future. The team is already the best in CONCACAF, and the FIFA rankings would agree with me.
Many of the youngsters that have graduated from the youth programs will be participating in the 2010 World Cup. They are all still young enough to be selected for 2014 along with the next batch of young US stars. The future is bright, and the Americans bringing home a World Cup title would allow me to die happy.