Sport comes in many variations, both in terms of the types of sport but as well as the level of sport. Some people find college basketball more entertaining than pro basketball, others refuse to watch a sport unless it is played at the highest level, and still others consider international play to be the most important of all. When it comes to soccer, count me among the latter. That isn't to say that international soccer is the best played soccer in the world, because it isn't. Players spend more time with their clubs and the Champions League will always be of a higher quality than the World Cup. But international soccer has the pageantry that you simply don't get at the club level and the importance that cannot be matched by tournaments that are played every year rather than every four. For me, the pinnacle of sport will always be the World Cup and I am a die hard United States fan before all others. I bother with this preamble because I want anyone reading to understand that this comes from a place of love and support rather than one of kneejerk criticism or complaining for the sake of complaining. This is important because I believe that the United States will never become a force in international soccer until we begin to hold our team to a higher standard.
The United States qualifies out of CONCACAF, a region that is not the worst in the world but is still set up for the US to qualify for every World Cup in the foreseeable future. There is only one other dominant country in the confederation, Mexico, a team that is an outside candidate for one of the best eight teams in the world when speaking most charitably. After Mexico comes a bevy of potential dark horses, but no perennial challengers save Costa Rica, and the Ticos still do not compete on the same level as the powerhouses. The way qualification works for the 2014 World Cup is that the top three countries of the final group of six will play in Brazil automatically while the fourth place country must play the first place country from the OFC (note: the best country in this federation will routinely be New Zealand, which should give you an indication of quality) in a home and away series to move on to the big show.
What does all of this mean? The United States should never, ever fail to qualify for the World Cup under these rules. Even if they were to lose both matches to Mexico and then sink into fourth place below their arch rivals and two other countries that happened to get hot at the right time, they would still only have to win a playoff with New Zealand (worst case scenario) to advance. Do you see how embarrassing this would be? How just shy of mathematically impossible it is? Even with only seven points through four matches (!), the US still only needs a win over Antigua & Barbuda and (mostly likely) a draw in a home game with Guatemala to advance to the final round, which will consist of Mexico and four other teams that of course could win, but shouldn't. The US has played about as poorly as it could so far and they still need middling results in two very winnable matches to move on. This is CONCACAF.
Let me say here that I am aware this sounds dismissive towards Honduras, Panama, Canada, and a host of other countries. I mean no disrespect, and that is the honest truth, and it is also not to say that these teams couldn't beat the US or finish ahead of them in the final group. However, I would hope we could all agree that it is a stretch to think that this would be an acceptable result to a country with the United States' population and financial backing. Antigua and Barbuda has fewer residents in the entire country (shy of 82,000) than the capacity of many football stadiums in the US. The GDP per capita of the US is almost seven times that of El Salvador. These may be extreme examples, but these are countries the United States is participating against to make it into the final round of qualifying for the World Cup. Upsets happen and nothing is certain no matter how it looks on paper. But again, such failure would be unheard of for the US.
What this means for the men's national team and what it means for us as fans is that we cannot continue to be happy to pull out close, "must have" wins. We cannot continue to laud the team when they do the minimum that is required of them. This does not, of course, mean that every game must be a 4-0 blow out and that there will never be momentary setbacks, and it definitely does not mean that the fans should openly boo a team that is coming just short of putting it all together midway through a match. But we cannot be satisfied with the minimal standards that have been set for us. We need to aim higher and we need to be more. I watched this year's US team lose at Jamaica and then barely pull off a 1-0 win in the return match in Columbus, Ohio. Yes the team was missing Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, yes they dominated the opening 45 minutes of the game in Columbus, and yes they are sitting in first place in the group (although Jamaica and Guatemala also have the same seven point as the US) even with all of this happening. But this is the "phew, glad that worked out" kind of attitude that keeps the fans happy with making the knockout stages of the World Cup and nothing more. It is what is keeping the United States from progressing to the next stage in their soccer development.
This men's team will not suddenly turn into Spain or Brazil or any other of the traditional powerhouses that dominate the major tournaments. But there is a path and it is one that the United States seems to have wandered off. Not backwards or to their violent death, but simply "off." 1998 was an embarrassment, but perhaps too much was expected too soon. 2002 was a perfect stepping stone but then 2006 was a letdown. The problem more than anything was that 2010 seemed fated. It was "fine" that the US barely qualified for the knockout stages out of a weak group and it was "understandable" that they were bested by a talented but beatable Ghana squad. At the time, you have to be grateful. Clap your players off the field and thank them for their service. They gave you something root for and they gave you at least one fantastic moment. But this respect is given with the understanding that the system is moving forward, that things are getting better and that more will be expected next time, not that we have achieved what we want to achieve and it's time to settle into a groove. We should always want more.
Jurgen Klinsmann has attempted to change the culture of United States soccer at multiple levels and I am aware that it is too soon to see the full results of what he wants to do. I understand this and I accept this. But that does not mean that he has freedom to operate forever. I still assume that the US will qualify for Brazil and I am far from crying for revolution in the system. But again, this patience comes with the assumption that things are moving forward, that we are progressing and not consolidating. If 2014 brings us another typical United States performance, we may need to find a new path.