When I look to the United States U20s game against Canada on the 26th of February — the one match that stands between the Yanks and a trip to the U20 World Cup, a trip which alluded the 2011 squad — I feel some combination of trepidation and excitement. Sure, the United States should come out on top, but that expectancy is more terrifying than staring across the field at a Spain or Brazil team that should romp to a comfortable 4-0 victory. “Supposed to” is just not something I, or many American soccer fans in fact, are particularly comfortable with.
As a sports fan, I’m not used to being a fan of the big, bad bully. In baseball, I follow the saddest route of many New Yorkers: becoming a Mets fan. Football? I align myself with the Jets and their unyielding little brother complex over the Giants, with their recent and historical success. Even when it comes to choosing a club team to support, with all the world my oyster and no homegrown ties to a culture of ineptitude, I gravitated to Queens Park Rangers and all the turmoil of the four-year plan.
Needless to say, high expectations have not worked out particularly well for me in my rooting history. Among US soccer fans, I really doubt that I am alone.
A History of Disappointment
When the expectations for US soccer were the highest — 2006 World Cup, post-Confederations Cup, 2011 Gold Cup — the let downs were often swift. The run in 2002 and win over Spain were hailed as seminal moments for soccer in the United States. Then? Fizzle.
Thankfully, the expectations for this U20 team are not quite on that level. Benji Joya, Luis Gil and Jose Villarreal are nice players who could contribute to the full USMNT one day, but the squad Tab Ramos brought to Puebla is hardly full of world beaters. They have one simple goal: qualify for this June’s U20 World Cup in Turkey. While those expectations should not seem too lofty for this group, failure would be seen as an abject disaster.
Rhetoric from the soccer power structure and blogosphere alike have proclaimed that while results on the field have not completely demonstrated grand-scale progress, the future is bright. Yet, this forward thinking philosophy would be harder to believe if consecutive U20 cycles came and went without US representation at the World Cup. Put that on top of a 2009 squad that failed to advance from its group and what once looked like promising development begins to look a lot more like stagnation.
One missed World Cup can be presented as a fluke. Two? That’s a different story. A loss to Canada would be enough to make even the most ardent supporters a little queasy and set off a panic about where the USMNT goes once Clint Dempsey and friends call it a career.
This team should beat Canada. It really should. But heading into the match, the American soccer psyche is teetering on the edge. An expected victory would be enough to restore hope in the future — at least until June — while a loss? Well, I’d rather just not think about that.