US soccer success and World Cup chances in Brazil

This summer, the world’s biggest sporting event will once again take place from mid-June to mid-July. Indeed, eyes in all nations will turn to Brazil, host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the prestigious international soccer tournament held every four years.

While many citizens of the 32 participating countries will anxiously await to see if their homegrown boys can bring home the coveted Jules Rimet Trophy, this particular World Cup also has specific significance for those of us here in the United States: it marks the 20-year anniversary of the turning point in American soccer.

Preparation for 1994

The fact that the year of soccer’s rebirth (in America, at least) coincided with the year of my own birth makes it sound too recent, but that is, in fact, the case. The United States was tasked with hosting the 1994 World Cup, a decision that surprised many due to our country’s general lack of interest in the sport at that time.

With professional sports like the NFL, the NBA and MLB dominating the airspace, the U.S. did not even have a professional soccer league.

The scarcity of American interest in soccer spread to its quality as well: the United States did not qualify for a single World Cup from 1950 to 1990, and even when they finally qualified for the World Cup in 1990, they were destroyed in all three of their first-round matches.

Thus, worldwide expectation for the United States’ performance both in hosting and in playing at the 1994 World Cup were very low. However, newly elected United States Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg planned to shatter these preconceptions.

The Successes and Effects of the 1994 World Cup

Rothenberg’s first major move was to hire Bora Milutinovic, a Bosnian who had found previous World Cup success with fellow North American powers Mexico and Costa Rica, as coach.

Next on the agenda was to increase media coverage in order to create domestic excitement for the tournament and sell tickets. Both of these moves proved successful.

Through repeated press conferences, press interviews and corporate sponsors, Rothenberg told Sports Blog Nation, “the American public was beginning to buy what the World Cup was about and to identify with players.”

The result? The highest-attended World Cup in history. The 1994 World Cup to this day holds the record for the highest total attendance (3,587,538) and average attendance (68,991).

In addition, Milutinovic led the national team to a surprise success: qualifying for the round of 16. Anticipated to finish last in their group of four, the U.S. surprisingly tied a tough Switzerland team before stunning a heavily-favored Colombia squad, and those two results were enough to push them through to the next round despite a loss to Romania.

They did lose in that next round, but it was in a hard-fought match to eventual champion Brazil. The team’s success and the hype surrounding the tournament led to a spike in interest in American soccer and, shortly following, the creation of Major League Soccer.

The Growth of Soccer in the States

The evolution of the American soccer team really has been remarkably rapid. Just 20 years ago, the United States barely had a World Cup history and was hardly a threat on the international level.

These days, after just four more tournaments, the Stars and Stripes are at a point where they are consistently expected to not just qualify for the World Cup, but be capable of making some noise in the tournament.

Despite a disappointing showing in the 1998 World Cup, the team made a stunning quarterfinal run just four years later, and nearly knocked off powerhouse Germany in that round.

They reached a Top 5 FIFA World Ranking entering the 2006 World Cup. They topped their group in the most recent World Cup, (a group that included England, the self-proclaimed title favorites every year) and nearly returned to the quarterfinals with a narrow loss in the round of 16.

Major League Soccer is thriving, at peak popularity. And, perhaps most significant of all, many currently consider the United States to be a bigger (or at least equal) threat on the world stage than bitter rival Mexico.

Looking Ahead

So, 20 years after the American soccer renaissance, what does the 2014 World Cup have in store for the boys in red, white and blue? Well, unfortunately, their chances of a deep run in the Cup look dire.

The U.S. was drawn into the dreaded “Group of Death,” featuring traditional powers Germany and Portugal, as well as a plucky Ghana team, the same side that has eliminated them in the last two tournaments.

In addition, the runner-up of this group is likely going to have to face a wickedly talented Belgium squad in the next round, and beyond that, the likes of Argentina or France.

Thus, probably the best result American fans can hope for is that they finish a surprising second in their difficult group, and go down in a hard-fought round of 16 match. To do this, the United States absolutely needs a good result in their first match against Ghana.

A tie would keep them in the conversation, but a win would go a long way towards their odds of advancing. Beating (or even tying) the Germans in their final group match appears to be a pipe dream, but the U.S. is more than capable of upsetting a skilled but inconsistent Portugal team, which could set them on their way to the round of 16.

However, no matter what result arrives this summer, American fans need only to look back 20 years and marvel with pride at how far we have come in the world’s most popular sport.