America has a soccer problem. Or rather, America has a Team USA problem. As a country built on industrious advantages and physical superiority, we're staring straight down the barrel of Jurgen Klinsmann's diamond midfield and looking right into mediocrity—the biggest fear we have as a country that we're not willing to openly admit.
We make concessions trying to justify our ineptitude on the world's biggest stage: cliched jokes about real football or gaffes about games ending in ties or ever misplaced criticism on flopping (even Derek Jeter flops, guys). This is the same country that celebrates supremacy in a contest in which its reigning champion's margin of victory is measured in "hot dogs including buns." We are not above soccer. We are just above not being good at soccer.
Theories abound on why we don't have a pipeline of little Yankee Messis running the MLS. There are half-baked ideas on college athletics ruining professional development. And there are stipulation scenarios: What if Kobe Bryant entered AC Milan's youth academy instead of enrolling at Lower Merion? What if Cam Newton used his next level athletic frame to become a world class striker for Real Madrid?
Instead, the players we have—our "stars"—are merely caricatures of what the general American public thinks about the sport. Our most capped player, and arguably the best player one we've had in history, isn't even going to Brazil. The guy whose main job is to put the ball in the back of the net hadn't scored a goal since October until two days ago.. The player we are building our team around for the next four years is pale and bald. Our team captain has the same taste in jeans as Barack Obama.
Simply, the USMNT is swagless. In a sport dominated by tight haircuts and excessive flair, our beloved Stars and Stripes fall tragically short. The team has historically played a boring, vanilla brand of soccer, choosing to play defensively and wait around to counter-attack. Red blooded American sports fans want a "Young Chop on the beat" Chief Keef banger, but we got a J. Cole album instead.
The boys in red, white and blue are sartorially challenged as well. Clint Dempsey uses a "buy nine, get the tenth free" punchcard to get his haircut. Jozy Altidore looks like he modeled himself after an Express Men's mannequin and Chris Wondolowski is a platinum donor to the Jos. A. Bank political party.
Did I stumble onto an SEC game in Alabama or an exhibition soccer match in New Jersey?
I attended the USA vs. Turkey friendly this past Sunday and save for a half attended MLS game, I've never been to a "real" soccer match. The friends I was with all planned on tailgating before the game. This immediately concerned me, realizing that I only know the game through screens: NBC PL games, YouTube highlight clips, Wikipedia articles, FIFA 14 rosters, shitty FirstRow streams. Here we were, going to a game that consumes most of the billable hours at my day job and I had anxiety about tailgating. "Do people tailgate here?" "Is grilling hot dogs and drinking beer in the parking lot a thing for Premier League fans?" "Have I been saying 'Premier' League wrong this whole time?!""Are all these real soccer fans going to laugh at me because I look like I'm going to a college football game?"
When we were in line for the parking lot, we saw a few friends making their way to the stadium. On impulse, I reached into the back and gave them a 12-pack of beer in the interest of solidarity because we were both in this strange sports world in America that looked and felt American, but wasn't "traditionally American" at all. Everyone around us was draped in flags, head-to-toe in red, white and blue and participating in cool call and response cheers. Did I stumble onto an SEC game in Alabama or an exhibition soccer match in New Jersey?
Even, as fans, we seemed just a little out of the loop. Our chants are borrowed and recycled from famous European clubs. We'd adopted the use of scarves from a country that utilized them out of necessity, even though our games are in the summer. And we couldn't even figure out how to properly get drunk before a match.
But, instead of that being being a consolation, why weren't we looking at it as a good thing? We all lament on how soccer hasn't truly arrived in the USA, but what exactly are we waiting for anyway? Some of the greatest sports narratives have involved a ragtag team of misfits who come together to beat the crosstown Hawks (Ghana). Or out-skate Team X-Bladz (Portugal). Or take back a baseball from a giant mythical dog owned by Darth Vader (Germany).
It's not as simple as the old chip on the shoulder, "MUHFUCKAS NEVER LUHED US" ("MUHJUGENS NEVER LUHED US," in Donovan’s case). We want to believe in these swagless struglords. And we're so fucking desperate for international relevance that in the back of our head we're all thinking, "Okay, so total long shot here, but we can get a win against Ghana and then squeeze out a draw against Portugal and then Germany will absolutely, definitely rest their starters against us so we'll most likely-maybe-for sure get another point from them, which means 5 points will be good enough to get out of the group?"
Jay Z famously asked us if we'd, "rather be underpaid or overrated?" Personally, I'd rather Jozy Altidore score six goals because moral victories are for minor league countries.
Nickolaus Sugai is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter here.