The State of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team

Did you watch the CONCACAF Nations League final between the USA and Mexico Sunday Night?

If not, you missed a right cracker.
I'll tell you about it, but first, a word about The Nations League.

It's a competition roughly modeled after the European competition of the same name. Each "season," at least as it is set now, will take take place on and off over two calendar years. It's divided into League A (the top tier, 12 teams/countries), League B (middle tier, 16 teams) and League C (bottom, tier 12 teams). Four teams are promoted to and relegated from Leagues A and B each season, and four teams are relegated to League C each season.

Group A has a four-team semifinal and championship game each season, with the first one just concluding. Did I say it was a right cracker? It was. 

The stated purpose of the Nations League, which I think is admirable, is to give the minnows of the confederation an opportunity to play more often, with achievable goals. These are your Turks & Caicoses, your Bonaires. Usually, their national teams only get to play in World Cup or Gold Cup qualifying, neither of which do they have a realistic shot at. They do have a shot at getting promoted to League B, however.

On the top side of the tournament, we can usually expect Mexico and the United States to finish 1-2 in some order. And this time, it was the Americans coming out on top, 3-2 in extra time.

This game had fights, a stoppage due to homophobic chants from the crowd, bottles and trash being thrown from the crowd, a red card for the Mexican manager, and in extra time alone, two non-fouls in the penalty area (one a handball, one a common foul) overturned by instant replay for a penalty kick to be granted, one for each team.

The U.S. converted theirs. The Mexicans did not. That was the difference in the game.

The Mexico penalty kick was saved by back US goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, who was an unexpected mid-game injury substitution for starter Zack Steffen. In making the save, he instantly became a U.S. soccer folk hero. The Americans had not beaten Mexico in any sort of tournament game since 2013.

It's a heady moment for U.S. soccer, but I suspect not all is rosy, both on and off the pitch.

This team is very young and is being billed as "The Next Generation." They are led by Christian Pulisic, who at 22 is already a UEFA Champions League champion with Chelsea, and the most high-priced North American ever in Europe. He converted the extra time penalty kick. He's, perhaps obviously, great, and I am also super high on Weston McKennie, who's also 22. Steffen is 26 and Gio Reyna, who now has three goals with the U.S. National Team in seven games, is just 18.

But while it's clear this team has a lot of chemistry, I didn't detect a ton of cohesion in either the final against Mexico or the semifinal against Honduras. Too many unsuccessful passes, too many Bambi-on-ice-lookin' moments, and a lot of bullets dodged. Mexico got off 21 shots and had 57% of the possession; it's not as if the Yanks went completely toe-to-toe statistically with our southern neighbors.

With their youth, this team may be better suited to compete for the 2026 World Cup than the 2022 World Cup, which may be the idea; the U.S., along with Canada and Mexico, will host in 2026.

But I'm worried as well about what appears to be U.S. broadcasters turning away from soccer. This match was on CBS Sports Network, which lags well behind ESPN, FOX Sports, and even NBC Sports Network (which is soon to be no more) in terms of carriage. CBS Sports also carried most of the UEFA Champions League. Why aren't the bigger names in U.S. network sports ponying up for soccer anymore? Can the answer be anything but poor ratings?

There are other examples. As I write this, South American World Cup qualifiers are being played. These used to be carried in the U.S. by Bein Sports. Now they are carried in the U.S. by ... nobody.

Canada's national team is playing a World Cup qualifier against Suriname tonight. Between Canada's two big sports networks, Rogers Sportsnet and TSN, there are 10 Canadian general sports channels. This match isn't on any of them. Canadians will have to subscribe to a streaming-only service called OneSoccer to catch this one.

This all bodes poorly for U.S. soccer fans in the next few years. Hopefully, interest and rating will get a boost in time for the 2026 World Cup. We Yank fans in the meantime should enjoy this win. It was a right cracker.

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