U.S. Soccer is considering hosting a tournament for teams that missed out on Russia 2018, and American supporters should welcome the opportunity
“Shock” settled in swiftly. For fans of the U.S. national team, the October loss to Trinidad & Tobago left them processing the realization that their country won’t be represented at the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
There will be no moment of transcendence for the sport stateside. No stage for Christian Pulisic to shine on. No watch parties from coast to coast, binding diehard and casual fans alike.
Then “denial” surfaced in corners of the fan base, with Panama’s ghost goal — used to top Costa Rica and leapfrog the U.S. — generating frivolous notions of an appeal.
But before long it was time for anger to take center stage. From coach Bruce Arena and federation president Sunil Gulati to stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, few associated with the Americans’ World Cup failure have escaped the ordeal with their reputations unscathed.
That brings us to “bargaining” — in this case, the idea is that the U.S. could host its own tournament next summer featuring high-profile teams that missed out on the World Cup. Goal reported last month that U.S. Soccer, Soccer United Marketing and Fox were discussing such an event after powerhouses like Italy, the Netherlands and Chile also missed out on Russia 2018.
Now this stage of grief is typically seen as a desperate attempt to escape one’s sorrow — and there are plenty of skeptics who interpret the proposal as just that. Yet they shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a World Cup “NIT.”
Yes, some have gleaned a misguided message from the idea. (“We don’t need your dumb tournament — we’ll start our own!”) But the U.S. and Co. aren’t going to be naive about this: They know missing out on Russia was a devastating shortcoming. They also know their event would be a blip on the soccer radar next summer.
What would the critics have these teams do instead, anyway? Go to their room and think about what they’ve done? Every one of these countries is engaging in some significant soul searching. Staying home instead of playing matches won’t accelerate the process, while serving as the opposition for World Cup-bound teams’ tune-up friendlies would be underwhelming in its own right.
If the U.S. program is serious about rebuilding for the 2022 World Cup, then it should embrace a chance to give the likes of Matt Miazga, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams minutes against quality opponents in a semi-competitive environment.
It’s worth noting that the U.S. won’t play another truly meaningful game until the 2019 Gold Cup. The CONCACAF League of Nations, meanwhile, will limit opportunities to play friendlies against teams outside the region. (The jury is out on how seriously teams will take that competition, which kicks off next fall.)
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Although the World Cup is an irreplaceable opportunity for exposure among fans and media, still playing games next summer would, ever so slightly, soften that blow. Any supporter would naturally prefer to watch their players in the World Cup from afar than see them in a consolation tournament up close. But having matches on home soil would be a nice bonus — for the fans, and for U.S. Soccer’s coffers.
Just imagine a packed summer of soccer, with the NIT-style tournament serving as an early June appetizer before the main event. Where’s the harm in that?
With Friday’s World Cup draw poking at the wounds of that fateful night in Couva, U.S. fans may find themselves reliving the stages of grief. While it may not feel like it now, “acceptance” is on the horizon — and a World Cup NIT can be a healthy part of the journey.