Bright Lights, Little City: World Cup Slackers

For many Austinites, including myself, soccer exists all year every year. Whether it’s the casual pick-up player at Zilker Park on Sunday mornings, the competitive men’s and women’s leagues, the dedicated club bars around town, or the Lone Star Youth Soccer Club, soccer thrives in our little city. In fact, in 2017, the Precourt Sports Venture announced its desire to move the Columbus Crew to the bustling town of Austin. I can only imagine the sadness a Columbus fan felt, but for Austin it would be a great opportunity for our first professional sports team. For many Austinites, having our own club and stadium would be an absolute dream. The equal/opposite feeling for both Austin and Columbus is much like the feelings of trepidation any American soccer fan has felt for at least the past 28 years: mediocre highs followed by unbearable lows followed by a sense of hope and potential followed by—without fail—a phoenix-like implosion. So to honor the possibility of Austin’s very first professional team and of course the World Cup, I figured some cathartic storytelling is just what the doctor ordered.

 

It’s not the most popular sport around here, so do not fret if you were not following along with the United States Men’s National team’s qualifying campaign. Our impractical, arrogant ambitions led us to our first failed qualifying campaign in 28 years. Some people blame the coach, some people blame the players, some the domestic soccer league. In all honesty it’s all of them. For some reason the USMNT forgot that nothing is guaranteed and that it wasn’t long ago we were laughably terrible.

 

As a millennial born in ’89, it was damn near impossible to imagine a World Cup without the United States, because we deserve it, of course. In 1988, the U.S. was awarded the honor of hosting the World Cup in 1994. Our nation's patriotism shone bright, and if we were going to host it, we had to be great, dammit! To the rest of the world’s dismay, in 1990, the U.S. had qualified for its first world cup in 40 years. With a magnificent victory over Trinidad and Tobago! What’s more American than taking on two countries at once? Sadly, the U.S. lost every group stage game in 1990, but the fire was lit and there was no way we could perform that badly at home.  

 

During the U.S.’s 40 year hiatus from the sport, the rest of the world had become enchanted with the beautiful game. While the U.S. isolated itself during the Cold War, assuming anything European or foreign to be socialist and communist, the rest of the world was focused on kicking a ball around and maybe tying 0-0, the U.S. officially fought three wars (to be fair, we kinda tied those too), invented color TV and the microwave oven, and put a man on the moon. So what if we weren't good at soccer? We had MTV and democracy. In 1994, we had been rejuvenated with our very own American badass’s of non millennial blood lines, equipped with denim jerseys and the occasional mullet.

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Marcelo Balboa, ladies and gents. Repping these beauties on home soil, we actually made it out of the group stage only to lose in the round of 16. Can’t remember who won that year; not important either way. The U.S. had solidified itself as a contender and a soccer-playing country.

 

Full of gusto and vigor, over the next two decades the U.S. established its own league, developmental academies, and infrastructure. One of my favorite parts of the 90’s was the American twist we brought to our own league. Whereas other countries referred to their teams with the names of their host towns, we went full blown bald eagle on it, creating teams like the Kansas City Wizards or the Dallas Burnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. If these names don’t induce a little internal chuckle, I don’t know what could. Since then we grew up a little and these teams changed their names to Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas. Professional teams instituted their own developmental academies, and overall the quality of soccer in the United States has gone up. Unfortunately we still value the star power of washed up foreign players like Wayne Rooney or David Beckham over our own youth, thus giving less opportunity for internal growth. They took our jobs, essentially.

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In the 2000’s and up until 2016, our finest players actually played in some of the hardest leagues abroad, testing their mettle against the world’s finest on a regular basis. Big surprise, we weren't very good, and our players didn’t make a lot of money compared to the superstars. The MLS changed its tune and started recruiting the big name U.S. players hoping to get butts in seats, taking the second-rate pros to overpaid, over-glorified, soft, tattooed sissies. Yeah I said it, sissies.




 

After a tough qualifying camplaign, where the USMNT lost to teams from Central and Caribbean countries (whose stars play in our domestic league), the U.S. failed to qualify. Only to be let down with a full-circle failure to qualify for the 2018 world cup in our last game of qualifiers against… two countries: Trinidad and Tobago! (Had we played them individually, I don’t think it would have been a problem.)

 

Good news, the 2026 World Cup will be hosted by the United States, Mexico, and Canada. That’s right, we qualify no matter what. The brightest up-and-coming stars for the USMNT actually all play in Europe, most of them having moved to developmental academies in their teens. Christian Pulisic, whom I refer to as my baby boy, actually plays for one of the largest, most storied team in Europe, Borussia Dortmund—and get this, he’s really good. Another, Westin Mckinney, starts center midfield for Schalke. Both players and teams are going to be in the Champions League next year, while other players like Josh Sargent show promise to break into first teams at 18 years old. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. wins the 2026 World Cup.

 

Personally, I am hoping for throwback denim jerseys and mullets to come back around.