Way down on the list of words used to describe the United States' World Cup exit yesterday, past “heartbreaking” and “crushing” and “depressing” and “exhausting,” is “encouraging.” It takes a while to get there – you’ll have to come to terms with Chris Wondolowski's missed sitter in the 92nd minute and accept that Tim Howard has played in his last World Cup – but there’s reason for optimism. America cared about Team USA. That right there was a huge victory, but keeping Americans interested is no easy task – fans of the Yanks may simply return to normally scheduled NBA, MLB, and NFL programming.
Many of the flag-bearing, face-painting, I-Believe-We-Will-Winners will go into hibernation until World Cup 2018 in Russia. Those guys were just in it for the beer. American soccer fans can keep cheering their heroes in the MLS, English Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga, all of which are know available via premium cable (an illegal streaming sites). There’s plenty of fun to be had, but – let’s be honest – it’s not as fun without the nationalism, which is why we’re hoping American fans will mobilize for international tournaments. There are plenty of upcoming competitions that promise serious drama.
If American soccer has – as the pundits say – finally come into its own, our boys will have to prove it well before they hop the plane to Moscow. Here are the next big battles for the American Outlaws:
2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup: Think of the Gold Cup as a smaller version of the World Cup contested by the teams in Central and North America. For two years, the winners of the Gold Cup can claim superiority in CONCACAF, which is what the U.S. has now after its win last year. Whoever wins the 2015 tournament will play the U.S. in a playoff for the right to advance to the 2017 Confederations Cup, a World Cup tune-up played in Russia in 2017. If the Americans happen to snatch the title again, no need for a playoff. We're going to Russia early.
2016 Copa America Centenario: The Copa América is South America's version of the Gold Cup, but in 2016 it's bulking up. For its 100th anniversary, the Copa América is coming to North America. The tournament will be staged in the U.S. and include six CONCACAF teams, the Yanks included. There are a lot of reasons to be psyched about the Copa America Centenario (the USMNT has a chance to test itself against Argentina and Brazil; Messi and Neymar are coming to the USA), but the biggest is that no matter where you live there will be a game played within driving distance.
2016 Olympics: Want a glimpse of the USMNT's future? Pay attention to the 2016 Brazil Olympics, where a roster of younger players will try to make up for the United State's failure to qualify in London. Granted, the Olympic soccer competition is not very prestigious, which leads some to brush it off, but Brazil is going to be the ultimate proving ground for potential senior team players. Jurgen will definitely be watching.
World Cup Qualifying: Later in 2016 the process for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup will begin. It's a long slog, but it can be a thrilling one, especially once teams reach the Hex, or the fourth round of qualifying that has six teams play 10 games against each other in hostile environments. The top three nations advance straight to the World Cup, while the fourth place team is sent to a playoff.
Take a little time and mourn, but don’t forget about Team USA. They’re improving as quickly as their fans.
Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images