This Friday night in San Jose the most important Soccer match in American history will occur; not because there is a trophy on the line, or millions will be watching, but because the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) is on the brink of missing the World Cup.
In the second round of CONCACAF qualifying the United States lost their first two games by a combined score of 6-1, this puts them in last place in the “Hex” (shown below). This led to the firing of Jurgen Klinssman who managed the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.
USMNT hired Bruce Arena as Klinssman’s replacement and gave the former LA Galaxy manager the task of leading the team to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. To qualify the US must climb its way back into the top 3 to automatically qualify, or finish 4th and play in a playoff. They have eight games remaining, 2 vs Honduras, 2 vs Trinidad and Tobago, 2 vs Panama, 1 vs Costa Rica and 1 vs Mexico. The team has
plenty of time to make up ground, but every game that passes the window for USMNT grows smaller.
The United States have participated in every World Cup since 1990, advancing to the knockout stages four times in that period. Many fans don’t even watch World Cup qualification because they are under the assumption that the USMNT will qualify for the World Cup easily. The early struggles put that assumption under serious scrutiny.
Almost 20 million Americans on average watched USMNT World Cup games in 2014 (more than 10 out of the last 11 World Series), that was up from 11 million in 2010, which was up from 6.6 million in 2006. That trend is massively helpful for soccer in the U.S., not only for television money but for youth development and engagement. MLS ratings grow significantly every season following a World Cup, and since 1990 youth participation is up 89%. Never has a sport in the United States shown so much growth over a small period of time, and it could all fall apart by the USMNT missing out on the 2018 World Cup.
If the United Sates can’t qualify it will delay, and potentially wreck, the growth of Soccer in the U.S. If the U.S. doesn’t participate television ratings will drop, which will limit the growth of MLS and slow-down youth engagement; even EA Sport’s video game FIFA will see sales fall, it could be a death blow for this beautiful game in the United States.
This is why Friday night’s match is so damn important, the U.S. needs a win at home to recover momentum after opening with two losses. A loss at home under a new manager will make hopes of U.S. qualification seem bleak, near-impossible even. A win, however, will put the U.S. back on track, and if they pull off a win in Panama the following week this moment of panic will be an aberration.
The challenge the USMNT and manager Bruce Arena face on Friday is Honduras, who split their opening two matches and have a couple of MLS stars on their front line. Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis, who play for Houston, will be a problem for the U.S. back four. The return of Tim Howard might ease some stresses the U.S. could experience but the strikers will be an issue on Friday.
The USMNT will also see the return of Clint Dempsey who is arguably the second greatest American soccer player ever, behind Landon Donovan. Dempsey’s return from heart arrythmia should help the U.S. moving forward and bring consistency and leadership to the squad.
However, the key to this match isn’t the return of those American legends, or Bruce Arena’s pre-game speech, it is the performance of the 18 year-old Christian Pulisic. The kid out of Pennsylvania has started to dominate on the field for German giants Borussia Dortmund. His play has advanced Dortmund to the quarterfinals of the Champions League when he scored the decisive goal in the most challenging competition on the planet. In the last 30 games Pulisic has 5 goals and 8 assists with his minutes growing by the appearance.
Christian Mate Pulisic was born on September 18, 1998 in Hershey, Pennsylvania to parents who both played collegiate soccer at George Mason University. Although he lives in Germany and has Croatian citizenship he rejected the opportunity to play for any national team other than the United States. Pulisic is the youngest American to make an appearance for the national team and the youngest goal-scorer in U.S. history.
Pulisic scored his first goal for USMNT last May, the night after his Senior Prom. Yes, a 17 year- old went to Prom, flew out to a match with some of the greatest players on the planet and scored. Think back to high school and your prom night
Pulisic’s emergence makes him the most talented, and some would argue accomplished, player on the pitch in the next two games, if he matches his performance with his talent than the U.S. might’ve found its savior; its “wunderkind”. There are talks of Arena moving Pulisic to the center of the U.S. attack and making him the feature piece of the team, this is a move I think the U.S. should make. If Pulisic scores and assists, the U.S. will win.
It’ll be a test for the USMNT on Friday night, but a desperate team trying to impress a new manager is a good sign. Adding two veterans back to the lineup and a young star is a good sign. Playing at home in front of what will be a raucous atmosphere in San Jose is a good sign. Hopefully for the USMNT and the fate of Soccer in the United States as a whole all these good signs will lead to a good and necessary thing, a win.
WHERE/WHEN TO WATCH:
March 24, 2017: United States vs Honduras 10:30pm E.T. - FS1
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