Can the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team Unite the Divided States of America?

Can the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team Unite the Divided States of America?

In 2013, I was covering a soccer match in Columbus, Ohio, between the U.S. men’s national team and Mexico when a man dressed as George Washington ran up to me and screamed, right in my face, “America! America! Motherfuckin’ America! Fuck yeah!” He did it because he was happy and he wanted me to be happy with him. And I was!

One of the primary joys of cheering for your country in international sport—at the Olympics, the World Cup, or a particularly rowdy curling championship—is the opportunity to be nationalistic in a (mostly) harmless way. Chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” in a stadium is dramatically different from chanting it at, say, an insurrection. But the Trump years made it hard for Americans alienated by the former president’s particular brand of “America First” politics to be overtly, and loudly, patriotic. Maybe soccer can help bring that back.

Tomorrow night, the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) will host its fierce rival Mexico in the next round of qualifying matches for the World Cup, to be held next November in Qatar. Even though the qualifying rounds are only half over, a victory would essentially assure the USMNT a bid; the soccer site We Global Football already gives them a 95.96 percent chance of qualifying, a number that would shoot even higher if they beat Mexico, their only real peer atop CONCACAF, both countries’ qualifying region. Qualifying is essential this year, after the disaster of missing out on the 2018 tournament, widely considered the most humiliating moment in the past 50 years of American soccer. Which brings us to the last time the United States hosted Mexico in a World Cup qualifier.

That was on November 11, 2016, three days after the election of Donald Trump, a man who had launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and then demanded that they pay for a border wall. Tensions were so high heading into the game that the American Outlaws, the supporters’ group for the national men’s and women’s soccer teams, felt obliged to reemphasize its code of conduct and its culture as “an inclusive and welcoming community.” The U.S. lost a tough, close match—one that most of the country, still in shock from the election, didn’t even notice—and two weeks later U.S. Soccer fired the coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Less than a year after that, the USMNT lost to Trinidad and Tobago, eliminating the Americans from World Cup contention, the first time they’d be missing the tournament since 1986. That failure had wide-ranging consequences, including the departure of yet another coach (Bruce Arena) and a restructuring of U.S. Soccer, and it made just about everyone involved with the sport in this country lose their collective minds.

Only four years earlier, the USMNT had gone on a “We’ve arrived” run at the 2014 World Cup, a joyous tournament highlighted by a John Brooks header that appeared to spark euphoria at every sports bar in the country:

I find watching that video incredibly moving because it seems like something from 100 years ago—something that could theoretically still happen today, even though it is difficult to visualize. Look at the crowds in that video: Chicago, Orlando, Birmingham, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Asheville—all coming together and cheering for the United States with unalloyed, synchronized joy.

Part of the magic of 2014 came from the USMNT’s traditional status as middling competitors on the world stage, outclassed as always by global powerhouses such as Germany, Brazil, and Spain. American sports fans—and Americans in general—tend to think of themselves as underdogs, even when all available evidence points to the contrary. But in U.S. men’s soccer, the national image matched the reality: The USMNT was an underdog. This made the team exciting to root for in a way that the basketball Dream Team never was. Cheering for the USMNT felt like punching up, which is pretty much the opposite of traditional American patriotism over the past century or so.

This led to a growing national fandom that I liked to call “hipster patriotism”: a mode of rah-rah Americana for people who wouldn’t ordinarily wear a T-shirt with an eagle draped in an American flag. It also felt, seven years ago, as if the triumph of the USMNT was inevitable, as if they—we—were on track to win a World Cup someday. Maybe as soon as 2026, maybe not until 2038 or even 2050, but eventually it was going to happen. Cheering for the team felt like investing in a growth stock.

But then the hipster-patriotism movement was derailed by the convergence of the Trump era and the 2018 World Cup qualifying failure. After that loss to Mexico, much of the U.S. fan base felt chastened, antsy, even a little embarrassed, and the team never really recovered either. The final humiliation, the loss to Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017, seems predictable in retrospect. The vibes were off the whole time, and not just on the field.

Cheering for ’Merica didn’t feel cool or ironic anymore. Yes, the team had fallen on its face, and that was part of it (even as the up-and-coming talent on the roster was noticeably improving). But it was also that rooting for the national team in such a brazenly patriotic way left me and many other fans feeling conflicted, at a time when many of us were more than a little embarrassed for our country.

Meanwhile, the U.S. women’s national team continued to dominate like it always had—but that didn’t stop the team from becoming a polarizing force during the MAGA years. Many of its players were overtly anti-Trump, none more vocally than the star Megan Rapinoe, who said that if the USWNT won the Women’s World Cup, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” It got to the point that right-wingers seemed to be actively cheering against the U.S. women at the Olympics this summer. National teams are, by design, meant to be unifying. But nothing seems to unify this country right now.

I was at a University of Georgia football game last weekend and saw a Let’s go, Brandon banner flapping behind a plane above the stadium. (It turned out to be an ad for Gettr, the social-media network for conservatives.) At the Olympics, the overarching conversation was more about the culture wars—athletes’ mental health, kneeling athletes, transgender competitors—than it was about the events themselves or the Olympic ideal. Weston McKennie, one of the USMNT’s young stars, wore a Justice for George Floyd armband last year and has said, “I’m representing a country that possibly doesn’t even accept me just for the color of my skin.” McKennie’s words and actions are in keeping with the inspiring wave of athlete activism that’s been building for the past couple of years, and that we can expect to see at the World Cup too. What then? Right-wing media actively weaponize such activism, calling players “unpatriotic” even as they literally play on the U.S. national team.

Into this breach comes the new version of the USMNT, an exciting roster packed with young stars, many of whom are thriving at the highest levels in Europe. They are led by Christian Pulisic, who was the best player on that 2018 team even though he was only 18 years old. This may be the most talented USMNT ever. The roster is incredibly likable and impressively diverse (the forward Tim Weah, for example, is the son of the president of Liberia), and it’s the sort of team that, if they get hot, could capture the national imagination. Most of the players responsible for the 2018 disappointment are gone: A new batch is in their place, and they’re a lot easier to cheer for.

I, for one, cannot wait to root hard for the USMNT tomorrow night, when they host Mexico in Cincinnati: Beating our rivals in World Cup qualifiers in Ohio is a U.S. Soccer tradition I’m ready to return to. But can the country get behind this team the way it did back in 2014? Can the country, collectively, get behind anything anymore? I don’t know. I hope so. Because it sure would be nice to be able to scream “America, fuck yeah!” again, surrounded by patriots, hipster or otherwise.


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