In the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the United States finished third. Granted, only 13 nations qualified and, Argentina battered the Americans 6-1 in the semifinals.
In the 20 iterations of the competition since then, third place remains their best finish. In fact, the closest the Americans came occurred in 2002. Then, in South Korea, a 20-year-old Landon Donovan led the U.S. to the quarterfinals, losing 1-0 to Germany.
The USMNT is long-maligned in terms of their international success. They missed each rendition of the World Cup from 1954 to 1986, nine consecutive tournaments. Despite relative success in recent decades, the Americans missed the 2018 World Cup in Russia after a calamitous October night in Trinidad and Tobago.
However, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented amount of youth success, recently edging Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup finals. The success brings in more American fans, many of whom now expect success against other major soccer nations.
It would be hard to expect a bunch of 20-something-year-old players to deliver on the world’s stage by 2022 in Qatar. Moreover, many of these players are just trying to break into the first-team squads at their clubs. Undoubtedly, there is positive progress for the nation in the realm of soccer. Soccer fans in the United States are beginning to seriously look at the U.S. World Cup chances.
The question remains: will the United States ever win a World Cup, and what must they do to get there?
United States’ World Cup chances rise with youth
In years prior, it was a novelty to see an American playing for a major club in Europe. The aforementioned Landon Donovan appeared for Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton. Tim Howard spent seasons at Manchester United before moving to Everton for a decade.
There are examples, but it was not commonplace.
Enter Christian Pulisic. We all know the story of the American phenom who burst through Borussia Dortmund’s academy. Pulisic is the first American to play in a UEFA Champions League Final, helping Chelsea beat Manchester City this past season.
The Pennsylvania-native carries an enormous burden on his shoulders. But, he has led other American youth to pursue their soccer careers in Europe. Players like Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna or Sergino Dest, who became the first American to play for FC Barcelona in LaLiga, set a new standard. Now, there is a relative abundance of Americans competing throughout Europe.
The young players appearing for the United States’ men’s team illustrate the potential for the U.S. as a soccer federation. With these players receiving first-team minutes at major European teams, they play against top opposition. International soccer is an instance of learning to play the game in different ways. And, by extension, if these young players make a strong impact on the European scene, they bring that experience to the USMNT and their CONCACAF opposition
With success in the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Nations League already apparent, the next logical step is defeating opposition from Europe or South America. Traditionally speaking, that track record is not as strong.
Pulisic is only 22 years old, but the USMNT captain positioned the new generation to realistically believe in U.S. World Cup chances going forward.
A change of culture
When the United States lost to Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017, it came as a shock to many Americans. Surely, a country with as much athletic talent as the United States could muster 11 players to beat Trinidad and Tobago. After all, the island nation’s population is smaller than just Hawaii.
With sports like American football, basketball, baseball and hockey demonstrating what Americans can accomplish, it makes a lack of true international success mind-boggling.
Perhaps the solution can be traced back to the roots in the country. Traditionally speaking, Americans value their ‘big four’ sports that command huge followings at the professional level. It is fun to watch a sport you play growing up, that cannot be denied.
When looking at viewership numbers across sports leagues in the United States, soccer is rising. In 2019, for example, average viewership of MLS games in the U.S. hit 268,000 people. Comparatively, the NHL was at 424,000 viewers. These are average numbers, and obviously some games will pull hefty audiences and other games might not.
That being said, if the United States’ World Cup chances are to improve, this reflects growth.
France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Brazil are the previous five World Cup winners. Soccer dominates these sports in terms of culture. It is the sport to watch, play and follow for men and women, old and young.
With more viewership of the sport in the United States, more people or families become invested in playing the sport. A culture change like this takes years or decades to be realized, but signs of progress are evident currently.
Increasing the Opportunities
In the 2000 European Championship, Germany picked up one point in three games in the group stage. They finished an embarrassing bottom of the group. The tournament served as a wake-up call for the nation’s soccer federation. They launched the Extended Talent Promotion Program in 2003, following a World Cup Final defeat against Brazil. Over the following couple years, Germany and the DFB established 390 bases to train young players aged 11 to 17. Just one year after its announcement, the program aided over 22-thousand young boys and girls.
Nearly 20 years after the establishment of the program, and Germany’s results are tangible. A World Cup is the most glaring success, but what is more remarkable is the constant release of new, young talents throughout Germany.
To bolster the U.S World Cup chances, the first step is to create a similar program. The United States Development Academy reflects the Extended Talent Promotion Program in various ways. According to their own website, the U.S. Development Academy “ensures the most elite players continue competing against each other.”
READ MORE: What the 2026 World Cup means for the United States as a host nation.
What needs to be enforced, however, is regulating who has access to the academy.
For many Americans, soccer is traditionally viewed as pay-to-play, allowing only wealthy families’ kids to play. As we see in relatively poorer nations like Brazil, money does not mean talent. In fact, the argument could go the other way, using players like Neymar as evidence.
To reach the next step in boosting U.S. World Cup chances, soccer must become available to low-income children throughout the country. Providing the youth to showcase their athletic abilities would tap into a market that would benefit the child, the team, the area and the sport as a whole.
Pay-to-play put a strangle on growth in the sport that is slowly being relieved. Now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal. Continued growth domestically will allow for future international success.
Pulisic and the recent victories over Mexico make it easy to fantasize about what could be in store for the USMNT.
Realistically, it is hard to expect the U.S. World Cup chances to skyrocket so quickly. If anything, the goal should not be to win, it should be to simply compete. In 2014, the United States lost in extra time to a loaded Belgium team, but they were by far the lesser team in the contest.
In Qatar 2022, qualification for the tournament should not be a goal, it should be an expectation. Likewise, advancing out of the group stage should not come as a joyous surprise. The USMNT currently sits at No. 10 in the Official FIFA Rankings, their highest since 2005 (No. 8). The other teams in the top 10 expect a quarterfinals appearance. It may be time to expect the same out of the United States.
When the United States jointly hosts the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, there is legitimate reason to be excited as a fan. With the growth of the game exploding throughout the country, the United States’ World Cup chances could be palpable.
For now, fans of the USMNT need to support the team, grow the game and encourage youth development to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves.
Author: Kyle Fansler