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‘Tragedy’ or embarrassing? Either way, U.S. men’s soccer team whiffs again

Americans have failed to qualify for the third straight Olympics

United States’ Sebastian Soto reacts at the end of a Concacaf Men’s Olympic qualifying championship semifinal soccer match against Honduras in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday, March 28, 2021. Honduras defeated the United States 2-1, qualifying for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, while the Americans will again be on the outside looking in.
Fernando Llano, Associated Press

Recently, we learned that the U.S. men’s soccer team won’t be traveling to this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games, and it’s not because of COVID-19; the Americans didn’t qualify.

Again.

They also did not qualify for the 2016 Olympics. And the 2012 Olympics. Oh, and the 2004 Olympics (and the Olympics in 1976, 1968, 1964, 1960). That means the men’s team has failed to qualify for the last three Olympics and four of the last five. (We won’t even mention the 2018 World Cup, another whiff.)

American hopes for an Olympic berth this summer officially ended last weekend when the U.S. lost to Honduras — Honduras?! — 2-1 in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico. The U.S. was beaten by a country the size of Ohio. Ivory Coast, Egypt and South Korea also will be among the 16 countries that will send teams to the Olympics.

“In our locker room, the guys are like it’s a tragedy — a tragedy,” said U.S. coach Jason Kreis (the former Real Salt Lake coach).

Well, that’s a stretch. Let’s just call it embarrassing. Or perplexing.

It’s tempting to blame this poor showing on the availability of so many other sports in the U.S., which tends to siphon off talent. But that doesn’t stop the U.S. from excelling in other sports. Americans win the medal count in every summer Olympics, and it’s not even close.

Americans produce outstanding teams in softball, baseball, water polo, basketball, ice hockey, volleyball — pretty much anything. Track and field, for example, loses thousands of athletes to football and women’s soccer, but still wins the Olympic medal race — 32 medals in the 2016 Rio Games, well ahead of runner-up Kenya, with 13.

The U.S. still excels in almost every sport — but not men’s soccer, the sport Americans were encouraged to embrace because, they were told, the rest of the world loves it. It’s almost politically incorrect not to like soccer, and Americans have dutifully embraced it.

There are more than 3 million players in American youth soccer leagues. The club system has monopolized young athletes, convincing hundreds of thousands of them to play the sport year-round, at great expense and at the exclusion of other activities. Yet, all that interest doesn’t translate into a strong men’s national team.

The U.S. women’s team is another matter altogether. The women’s team has been as good as the men’s team has been bad — four gold medals and one silver medal in the last six Olympics, plus the 2015 and 2019 World Cup championships.

It all leads back to the creation of Title IX in the 1970s, which began the rise of women’s sports and the demise of many men’s sports. There are 205 collegiate men’s soccer teams and 333 collegiate women’s teams. The NCAA’s scholarship limit for soccer is 14 for women, nine for men.

(Side note: Olympic rules also restrict the men’s team to players under the age of 24; the women’s team is open to all ages.)

There’s another reason that American women thrive: They don’t face the same caliber of competition as the men’s team. America has fully embraced women’s sports and female athletes; other countries, not so much.

In a 2015 article titled, “Soccer Is Still Out of Reach for Half the World’s Women,” Time Magazine noted that millions of women face “legal, cultural, and religious barriers” in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia, that keep them off soccer fields.

“Even in countries where there are no formal restrictions,” the magazine continued, “women often face death threats, accusations of unfeminine behavior, and heckling and catcalling from strangers on the sidelines. In some countries, women are even forbidden from entering soccer stadiums just to watch. … Clerics in Saudi Arabia have said that female sports constitute “steps of the devil” toward immortality.

“Egyptian women report that family members are often the ones to keep girls off the field, telling them that soccer is haram, forbidden in Islam,” the articles continues. “Afghan women players have received threatening text messages. Indian women were recently forced off the field after a Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against men watching girls play in skirts.”

Even in soccer-crazy Brazil, only about 1% of soccer players are women. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, national law prevented women from playing soccer until 1979 because it was “incompatible with female nature.”

American women not only don’t face such challenges, they are rewarded, encouraged and supported. Even in a country that was slow to embrace the game, they have thrived, enjoying advantages their counterparts do not have.

Americans came late to the game, but U.S. women have caught and surpassed international rivals while the men, faced with a more daunting challenge, are still trying to catch up.