Imagine being the prettiest and most popular girl in school (I can't) and not getting invited to the prom. Imagine being a stud athlete (again, I can't), the biggest man on campus, and having that girl turn you down for that date to the prom. Now imagine the most powerful nation on Earth, and one of the wealthiest, good at everything, resources abound, and not even qualifying for the biggest athletic tournament on the planet. Chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, are not being heard this time.
It's the first time since 1986 that the United States hasn't qualified for the World Cup soccer championship. This, just four years after getting out of the group stage, and making it to the Round of 16. America hosted the World Cup in 1994, and just found it it will do so again in 2026 (along with some matches in Mexico and Canada), but for this dance, the U.S. is the nerdy kid in the corner (that, I can identify with), or more aptly, the guy who the bouncer won't let through the ropes. The party goes on without them.
Thirty-two nations make up this competition. They are divided into eight groups of four, and each team will play each team in their group once each for a total of three games. The host nation, and the top seven teams in the world are seeded, one placed in each group, and then the other teams fill in the groups by random draw. The top two teams in each group advance to what they call the knockout stage—essentially a 16-team single elimination bout, until a champion is crowned. That will happen on July 15.
The tournament just got started on Thursday, but there have already been several headlines. Russia, which is hosting the event for the first time ever, routed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the tournament opener. Argentina, a soccer power and home of Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players in the world, failed to beat tiny Iceland, and settled for a 1-1 tie. Messi missed a free kick in that game that could have been the game-winner. Another one of the best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, scored three goals for Portugal in a 3-3 tie with Spain, and Brazil, which hosted the World Cup four years ago and lost in the final, tied Switzerland 1-1.
Those were all great stories, but the one closest to home, and still one of the stunners so far, was Mexico defeating Germany 1-0. If you don't know this, Mexico is a very good soccer team. Germany, though, is the top-ranked team in the world, and embarrassed Brazil 7-1 in the 2014 championship. Hirving Lozano's goal in the 35th minute was the only time the ball got past a goalkeeper in that match, and Mexicans were going crazy, and rightfully so. So much so, that celebrations in Mexico City triggered seismic sensors, and an earthquake was falsely reported. That's a lot of jumping up and down.
I'm not enough of a soccer fan to be infuriated or outraged that the United States isn't involved. I'm happy enough to be the nerdy kid and watch the event from the sidelines, but still you have to wonder. What happened? Why isn't the USA in the 32-team field?
Maxwell Smart has the answer. Team U-S-A missed it by that much. Qualifying for the cup (unless you are the host nation), takes about two years. On October 6, 2017, the United States defeated Panama 4-0. Their 3-3-3 record against teams from North and Central America was almost good enough to get them in. The Americans had one qualifying match left. It was four days later against the tiny island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, which had only one win in it's nine games. All Team U-S-A had to do was play to a tie, and they were in. They lost 2-1.
If you live in California, or even if you don't, you probably know that there are a lot of Mexican-American soccer fans in this country. Without the U-S involved, American sports fans might as well jump on the Mexican bandwagon. Now with a win over Germany, a victory over Sweden or South Korea, or maybe even a tie against one of those teams, should be good enough to get them into the final 16. They face South Korea on Friday, and Sweden next Tuesday. Maybe for the next few weeks, sports fans over here could trade their red, white, and blue, for red, white, and green.
Soccer by the numbers: Us non-soccer watching Americans always think that there is a really good chance that any match will end up in a 0-0 draw. That has not happened yet in the World Cup, although out of 14 matches played through Monday, 6 of them have been decided by a 1-0 score. Only 5 matches have seen more than a total of two goals in a game, and only 4 times has a team scored at least three goals (Russia's 5-0 opening win over Saudi Arabia, although three of those goals came very late, a 3-3 time between Portugal and Spain, perhaps the most exciting game played so far, and this morning's Belgium 3-0 win over Panama). Out of the 14 matches so far, there have been 3 ties.
More Gooooooools: I've said (and written) this many times including last week, that soccer is much more exciting on TV in Spanish than in English. Telemundo's lead announced Andres Cantor had the call for the Mexico-Germany game, and I watched most of the game on the Spanish language call. Because of my lack of fluency, I did go back to English now and then to maybe find out what was really going on... One of the other top Spanish announcers, Juan Perez-Navarro, did a game in English on Saturday (I think it was Peru-Denmark—I can't remember for sure), and it was great. He used his “gooooooool” call when someone scored, and had the enthusiasm Telemundo provides. I kept waiting him to forget which network he was on and call a play in Spanish, but he never did.