Dark days: What U.S. soccer was like the last time USMNT missed a World Cup
The nightmare we awoke to was no dream. The United States, for real, isn't going to the 2018 World Cup. It sounds unimaginable after seven straight appearances — and successive trips to the round of 16 — but that is the reality.
There are plenty of U.S. soccer fans who have never known a World Cup without the Yanks, but that used to be how it worked. The U.S. Soccer Federation would appoint a coach who would recruit some players and they'd go off and get wiped out in qualifying.
The U.S. went from beating England in 1950 to four decades in soccer's wilderness. That's part of why Paul Caligiuri's “Shot heard 'round the world” is so revered. It arrived four years late.
There was real belief in the American soccer community that the U.S. could, and would, end its drought in 1986. The field had grown from 16 to 24 four years earlier, and CONCACAF again had two berths. One of them went to Mexico, who stepped in as host after Colombia pulled out in 1982, and if the Yanks could overcome Netherlands Antilles, then Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada and Honduras — all of it doable, certainly — they'd be heading south.
Everything was going to plan heading into the final game of the first group stage in the 1985 CONCACAF Championship, which served as the region's World Cup qualifying tournament. The U.S. needed only a draw against Costa Rica at El Camino College in Torrance, California, to advance to the final round; Evaristo Coronado's 30th-minute goal carried the Ticos to a 1-0 triumph and into the last stage, where Canada would prevail.
That was the last time the U.S. failed to qualify for a World Cup. Soccer inhabited a very different American landscape back then. How different? Let's take a look.
Soccer in America
1985: The sport of the '80s! That's what we'd been promised, after all the buzz Pele provided the game during his time with the New York Cosmos and the youth-soccer boom that accompanied him, but there was no sign of anything like that as the decade hit its midpoint.
The pro game was nearly dead, the women's game in its infancy, and all these kids playing the game had little chance — or desire — to watch others play. There was a spirited community of fanatics who sniffed out whatever they could, but the general public, led by caustic voices in the media, generally ignored and otherwise reviled soccer. The game thrives only in ethnic conclaves and leagues.
2017: The sport of the '10s! It's not the NFL, nor the NBA, nor Major League Baseball, but things are looking good. Soccer has become an American rite of passage — everybody, it seems, either plays or has played (or has watched their child or grandkid play).
As more people have grown up with the sport, the audience for the game has greatly expanded. There are close to a bazillion ways to watch the game 24/7, and the U.S. sees more televised games from Europe than Europeans generally do.
The pro game has never been in a better place, there's a passionate fan culture surrounding the national team and clubs across the country (and around the world), and talent has developed talent at an unprecedented if not yet satisfactory rate. The women's game has continued to grow, with a pro league that's succeeding and a broadening pool of players for the national team, which is reigning World Cup champion.
The pro game
1985: The North American Soccer League, home to some of the biggest (if aging) names in the sport for nearly a decade, finally completed a long, agonizing decline following the 1984 season. The league had lost millions through overspending and ill-considered expansion, and the Cosmos' glory years were long past by the final years. The decision to suspend operations in March 1985 brought the league to an end.
That left the indoor game, through competing leagues, as the only pro game in the country and as the primary conduit to the national team. Four clubs on the West Coast would play in a Western Alliance Challenge Series, which in 1986 led to the establishment of the Western Soccer Alliance, the first post-NASL step into professional outdoor soccer on the shores and the forerunner of the modern USL.
2017: Major League Soccer has 22 teams and counting, has grown into a cultural force on these shores, and is followed around the globe. Its roster of players, bolstered by economic policies that have enabled the acquisition of superior players, includes in-form legends and rising stars.
Two MLS clubs regularly draw more than 40,000 fans. The modern NASL has struggled (and has filed an intriguing lawsuit that could greatly alter the U.S. pro game), but the USL, in partnership with MLS, has developed into a massive competition. The NWSL is widely considered the best professional women's league on the planet, and the pro indoor game soldiers on mostly anonymously.