How The U.S. Men Missed The World Cup, And What It Means For Soccer In America

Originally published on October 12, 2017 6:47 am

On Tuesday, the U.S. Men's Soccer Team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The stunning result brings to an end two disappointing years of qualifying matches for the United States, and reactions to those results could significantly change soccer in America.

World Cup qualifying is split into regions; the U.S. plays in CONCACAF, the soccer body covering North and Central America. Its qualifying tournament often is described as "forgiving," as it stacks the odds heavily in favor of stronger teams, including the U.S. and Mexico. Even after one of the worst qualifying cycles in recent history, ESPN measured the U.S. odds to qualify for next year's World Cup in Russia at 97 percent before Tuesday night.

But a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, combined with upset wins by Honduras and Panama, meant the only scenario that could outright eliminate the U.S. became a reality. Now, the country's soccer program must figure out how to rebuild and qualify for the World Cup in Qatar — five long years away.

The impact of failing to qualify

Financially, U.S. Soccer will miss out on at least $10 million in prize money awarded to each country at the World Cup. They're also likely to lose tens of millions of dollars in potential sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and television licenses. U.S. Soccer brought in about $100 million total in 2014, the year of the most recent World Cup. That would put a significant dent in the organization's revenue, and potentially set back the country's next generation of soccer talent.

The United States team wandered aimlessly for 40 years between the World Cups of 1950 and 1990, and have been trying to catch up to the top European and South American countries ever since. A key part of that effort is the fledgling U.S. development academy system. About a quarter of U.S. National Team expenses are spent on the country's youth national teams and player development — around $22 million in 2016. A budget crunch could limit the growth of that program.

The failure to qualify for the World Cup also could influence perception of U.S. Soccer around the globe. The United States team may find it more difficult to schedule exhibition matches, and larger international clubs — where U.S. players already are few and far between — may be less willing to sign Americans.

Meanwhile, dual-citizen players, who must choose one country to represent, may be less likely to follow the lead of phenom Christian Pulisic — who also has Croatian citizenship — and pick the United States. And younger American athletes may not be inspired to take up soccer in the first place if their country isn't represented at the world's biggest tournament.

U.S. Soccer will also miss its best opportunity to showcase the sport for potential new fans, which could hinder its growth moving forward. In 2014, about 20 million more Americans watched World Cup games featuring the United States than similar games without them. Next year, none of the games will feature the U.S. — and unlike the games from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2018 matches won't be broadcast in prime time.

In addition, the 2014 World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina reached a record number of Americans. Without the boost of the U.S. in the tournament, the 2018 Final may be unable to replicate those ratings.

That's all bad news for Fox Sports, which outbid ESPN for the broadcasting rights and will pay $425 million to air next two World Cups. The network already had scheduled more than 350 hours of World Cup-related programming.

However, missing the men's World Cup isn't the end of soccer in the United States. The women's national team is still ranked first in the world, and their World Cup win in 2015 set ratings records in the U.S.

The next Women's World Cup will be played in France in 2019, and qualification matches for that tournament begin next year.

Tim Webber is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

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