I knew we were in deep trouble the moment Trinidad and Tobago's second goal went in—a spectacular golazo from well outside the box. But I never suspected that we would actually be eliminated from the World Cup. And now here I am, bereft.
The U.S. Men's National Team was officially eliminated from the World Cup last night. Going in, it seemed as the U.S. was definitely going to make it. All they had to do was beat Trinibad and Tobago, a minnow that had long since been eliminated from World Cup qualifying. Even if they didn't, Panama and Honduras had to beat Costa Rica and Mexico—two of the best teams in CONCACAF.
All of that managed to happen last night, with the result being that the USA was left on the outside looking in on the 2018 World Cup. It was their first missed qualification since 1986.
You could say that it's an end of era. The past seven years has seen the popularity of the sport grow exponentially thanks in large part to a mix of increased availability on TV, America's World Cup success, and FIFA—the soccer sim that many call the "unofficial ambassador for the sport.
But now that era of unbound optimism is over. We've undeniably missed a chance to grow the popularity of the sport in the U.S. From now on the criticism will be harsher; the expectations higher.
But even as we sit out the upcoming World Cup, FIFA still has a part to play.
FIFA, Landon Donovan, and a New Era
The U.S. was just about finished in 2010. Needing a win to stave off elimination in the group stage of the World Cup, the U.S. entered the 90th minute tied with Algeria. All seemed lost until a quick break saw a ball bounce off the keeper, which Landon Donovan swiftly gobbled up and turned into the game-winning goal.
That goal triggered nationwide pandemonium among even casual sports fans, and was one of the first instances of crowd reaction shots being popularized by Youtube. Even if you missed the game, you could watch videos of fans losing their mind in bars across the country and get excited too.
The win created thousands of newly-minted soccer fans, many of whom proceeded to pick up 2010 FIFA World Cup—the game many consider to be the best FIFA ever made. It was in 2010 that FIFA finally broke past Winning Eleven to become gaming's best soccer sim, its rise serendipitously coinciding with the sport's explosion of popularity in the U.S. The 1994 World Cup had set the stage, but 2010 was when the sport well and truly "arrived" in the U.S., and the same could be said for FIFA.
FIFA became a stepping stone for nascent American soccer fans getting into the sport for the first time. It was there that many—including myself—discovered the joys of club soccer. Many found their favorite team through FIFA, choosing a club based on colors or their crest and slowly falling in love as they came to know the team's players and culture.
It was in FIFA that I half-jokingly decided to play as West Ham—a historic club that had been relegated out of the Premier League the year before. Three years later, I stood in Upton Park and sang "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" at the top of my lungs. It wasn't solely because of FIFA that I became a gigantic soccer fan, but it helped immensely. And now it's probably my favorite sport this side of hockey.
Other countries have taken note of FIFA's influence in the U.S. In profiling FIFA's role in popularizing the sport in America back in 2016, The Guardian called it the "perfect dorm room game."
"Playing [FIFA] in college really accelerated my soccer fandom," says Dillon Asher from Los Angeles. “Whether it was organizing a [FIFA] World Cup with eight of my closest friends, or trying to squeeze a game in before we went out, it's safe to say a game of [FIFA] was always on the table." The 22-year-old can also says he was not a soccer fan before he played [FIFA]. In fact, he doesn't think he could have named one professional player. "Now, I am a soccer addict. I saw my first and only soccer game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena a couple years ago and Manchester United won 7-0 against LA Galaxy."
FIFA worked as an ambassador because, like the sport itself, it was easy to understand and play. You didn't have to understand complex formations like in Madden; you didn't have to learn how to master insanely complicated controls like in NBA 2K, and you didn't have to develop superhuman timing like in MLB The Show. You just had to know how to pass the ball, shoot, and defend.
Once you figured those elements out, the world of soccer began to open to you. Playing in career mode, you could learn the basics of buying and selling players, qualifying for the Champion's League, and avoiding relegation. In Ultimate Team, you could learn about players from Spain and Germany, but also Chile, Russia, and Japan. For those who grew up in the extremely closed world of American sports culture, it was addictive.
In conjunction with Premier League soccer suddenly becoming widely available on NBC, awareness of the sport grew rapidly between 2012 and 2017. It was aided by another successful World Cup run in 2014, where the U.S. escaped a "group of death" to battle into extra time against Belgium.
Many assumed that American soccer would continue to grow unabated until the U.S. was finally ready to compete against powerhouses like Germany and Brazil. But as we saw last night, progress isn't always unbroken. There will be setbacks, sometimes severe ones.
The loss against Trinidad and Tobago was one such setback. But for those saying that missing the World Cup will hurt the sport's popularity in America: the genie is already out of the bottle. The Champions League and Premier League have a huge base of popularity among young fans; Atlanta United is breaking attendance records in MLS, and generational dynamo Christian Pulisic is already representing for the U.S. abroad.
Missing the World Cup hurts badly, but there's no question of soccer arriving in America. It's here. And FIFA is a large part of that.
FIFA 18 Still has a Role to Play in the Sport's Growth in America
And so American soccer marches on.
Despite missing out on World Cup qualification, there's still a way for America to take part in the festivities in Russia, if only in the virtual sense.
If EA continues their tradition of releasing World Cup-focused versions of FIFA, the USMNT will be one of the teams available to take through qualification. If you wish, you'll be able to change history and have Pulisic lead the USA to victory in the World Cup.
Absent that, one of the cooler features of FIFA's career mode is the ability to manage a national team in conjunction with your club team (it's not realistic, but who really cares). If you happen to get offered a job with the USA, you can guide them to the World Cup.
But FIFA's real importance is simply in being the world's most popular sports sim. Its ubiquity means that there will always be opportunities to push the sport on non-believers.
Now that the U.S. has been eliminated from the World Cup, FIFA will have to pick up some of the slack in evangelizing the sport. There will be no Landon Donovan goals (or Christian Pulisic goals) to push the sport to the forefront of the public consciousness. It will have to spread in other ways. FIFA will be one of those ways.
Despite the kvetching of hardcore fans (myself included), it's still an amazing gateway drug. I found soccer through the World Cup and the gentle guidance of my friends, but playing FIFA was where I really fell in love with the sport. And even five years and countless career mode seasons, I still can't put it down.
When the World Cup commences next year, the U.S. won't be there, but FIFA will be. I'd be lying if I said it was enough in the wake of the worst soccer loss in U.S. history. It may not be enough to grow the sport on its own, but it will do its part to get us through the brutal wait until the next World Cup.
As for whether we will recover from this setback, I'll just say this: I believe.