American Soccer Comes of Age

After decades of playing catch-up, the U.S. men’s team finally emerges as a World Cup contender.

Christian Pulisic reacts during a training event and press conference at Al Gharafa SC Stadium on November 19, 2022.
Christian Pulisic reacts during a training event and press conference at Al Gharafa SC Stadium on November 19, 2022. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty)

This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.

On June 10, 2002 in Daegu, South Korea, Claudio Reyna led the United States men’s national team onto the pitch to face the World Cup’s host nation. Daegu stadium was a sea of red bandanas, T-shirts, and scarves emblazoned with the nation’s name in Korean—Daehanminguk. Two and a half hours away, my family crowded in front of our television inside the cramped housing on Osan Air Base, in Pyeongtaek, to watch.

Admittedly, I had not watched much football to that point. All I knew was that the American women’s team were world-beaters, and the men’s team had been, routinely, beaten by the world. Across the previous three World Cups, the U.S. had played a combined 10 matches and won just one of them. In 1998, they’d scored only one goal the entire tournament.

American men’s soccer was behind. Major League Soccer was but eight years old—established, in part, to boost the U.S. bid to host the World Cup in 1994. And the league was bleeding cash at a rapid rate; it lost roughly $250 million in its first five years alone. Although the U.S. men’s team was beloved by those who followed the sport passionately, it was the dutiful kind of love I’d long had for teams in Cleveland (my dad’s from nearby Sandusky)—I’ll watch, but I know we’re probably going to lose.

But 2002 was different. There was hope for the men’s national team, or so I had heard. Five days prior, the U.S. had beaten a technically gifted Portugal side 3–2, and it seemed to be all my friends were talking about—mostly because they now worried that the perennial losers might beat Korea. Until the Americans’ triumph over Portugal, it had seemed a favorable match-up, as the Korean team had had a similarly poor run of tournaments. Thanks to a series of draws, they’d lost fewer matches than the U.S. since 1990, but they’d also never won a World Cup game.

I don’t remember much from the 90 minutes of play, only that Korea seemed to have the better chances and that the game was played to a 1–1 draw. What I recall most clearly, though, is the way the stadium roared throughout. The way our apartment seemed to vibrate when Ahn Jung-hwan headed in an equalizer in the 78th minute and imitated a speed skater—a nod to the disqualification of his countryman Ahn Hyun-soo at the Winter Olympics, which led to the American Apolo Ohno winning a gold medal. The way my friends beamed with pride as their young team played their way to the semifinals that year and finished fourth was my first experience being swept up in the passion of the sport, and how it brings people together. And by the tournament’s end, my family had our own “Be the Reds!” shirts and bandanas.

Every four years since 2002, I’d find myself with a soft spot for the Red Devils—rooting for them as if they were my own national team. Meanwhile, the U.S. team began performing better as the sport continued to grow at home. A generation of players—Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Eddie Johnson—came, excited fans, and went.

They were followed by what many have called the most talented crop of American players in the nation’s history.

On June 6, 2021, nearly two decades after watching the U.S. men take on South Korea, I plopped down on a couch to watch soccer. It was the CONCACAF Nations League final between the United States and Mexico. A classic rivalry. Mexico found the back of the net within the first minute of the match. I couldn’t help but think another disappointment was inbound. Twenty minutes later, another Mexico goal. But then came a surprise turn of events; referees ruled that Mexico’s player was offside and struck the point. A break. Then, at the 26th minute, the then-22-year-old American winger Christian Pulisic whipped a ball into the box off a corner. It was headed into the post and fell to 18-year-old Giovanni Reyna—son of Claudio, the U.S. captain I’d watched nearly 20 years earlier in Korea—who tapped it in to tie the match. The U.S. would go on to win 3–2 on a penalty kick from Pulisic in extra time.

Whatever pride my friends had swelled with in 2002, I found in this team: no longer simply lovable losers, but a promising young group that breeds hope in its fans. I’ve followed Cleveland sports long enough to know that hope can tear your heart out. But it’s fun to finally have some.

Listen to writer Clint Smith discuss the complicated feelings he has for soccer on a special episode of Radio Atlantic:

Subscribe here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Pocket Casts