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American Sports Media Was Apathetic To USMNT Qualifying For World Cup

Four years ago, Taylor Twellman went down in U.S. sports media history with his epic rant screaming “WHAT ARE WE DOING?!” to anyone who would listen after the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. On Wednesday night, the sports media reaction to the Americans returning to the World Cup was far more muted, almost apathetic in many cases. SportsCenter in particular buried the news deep in its flagship Scott Van Pelt broadcast.  

It had me asking: What are we doing as a soccer country when qualifying for the World Cup isn’t front-page news? Is this a good sign or a bad sign? And why are there still so many fans criticizing this team? 

Media Reaction To USMNT Qualifying For World Cup

Being both a member of and consumer of sports media, I’m always intrigued by how different outlets choose to cover major soccer events in this country. I watched the entirety of the CBSSN postgame coverage after the USMNT qualified on Wednesday night. That included the weird Gooch vs. Meeks arm-wrestling showdown after which I think the former USMNT players were more excited for Oguchi Onyewu beating Micah Richards in a silly contest than they were for their former team qualifying for the World Cup. 

CBS has impressed me with its coverage of both the Concacaf World Cup qualifying and Champions League. I still think they put too many games on Paramount+, which remains buggy as hell, but the productions, if and when you can watch them, are good. Kate Abdo continues to be the best in the world at her job, and the team of Clint Dempsey, Onyewu, Charlie Davies and Maurice Edu is both entertaining and insightful.

You can watch the full postgame coverage from CBSSN here.

Elsewhere around the country, Fox was delighted the U.S. qualified. The English-language TV rights holder for the World Cup in the U.S. all but gave up on soccer after the Americans failed to qualify in 2018, so having the home team in the tournament will be a huge boost to TV ratings this time around. While Fox doesn’t really have a news highlights show like ESPN’s SportsCenter anymore, it did put out a pre-produced video of Alexi Lalas and other Fox personalities — many of whom I didn’t recognize at all — congratulating the team. 

It was all a bit homerish, but that’s probably OK when you’re talking about a national team. 

Speaking of homers, President Joe Biden is definitely one. He’s spoken out in favor of the USWNT receiving equal pay in the past, and on Wednesday night @POTUS congratulated the men on getting back to the World Cup.

Speaking of old white men, former interim USMNT manager at the beginning of this World Cup cycle, Dave Sarachan, tweeted congratulations to the Americans for completing the job. How much credit do we give Sarachan for this successful campaign? It’s gotta be at least 0.5 percent, right?

Back to Wednesday night’s TV coverage, after the CBSSN postgame show ended, I noticed SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt was about to start, so I flipped over to ESPN to watch what proved to be a dumb ending to the Suns-Warriors game. 

Obviously, I’m coming at this with soccer-tinted glasses, but I kind of expected the USMNT qualifying for the World Cup to be one of the first topics discussed on SportsCenter. I now feel incredibly silly; it took more than 22 minutes for soccer to make the show.

There’s a reason I haven’t intentionally watched SportsCenter in years (with one annoying exception recently), and Wednesday night was another reminder why. As soon as the Suns-Warriors game ended, SportsCenter immediately showed highlights of the Sun-Warriors game everyone just watched. Unless it’s a major event, I don’t understand a sports news show beginning with something people just watched, but ESPN only cares about promoting events it owns TV rights to, so this happens all the time.

After they finally finished with highlights and a postgame interview, SVP jumped into his “Best Thing I Saw Today” segment, and I thought surely this is about the USMNT, because what could be better than the U.S. qualifying for the World Cup after failing to do so four years ago? Nope, it was a highlight from a Rockets-Kings matchup, two teams a combined 58 games below .500. Then there were more NBA highlights. Then some news about an NFL coach stepping down. 

Finally, before the first commercial break, there was a brief mention of soccer, with SportsCenter using Twellman’s 2017 rant to tease an upcoming segment on the USMNT. But when the commercials ended, Van Pelt pelted us with more NBA highlights. It would be one thing if the NBA were in the middle of the playoffs or if SportsCenter jumped around to the top stories in various sports (NHL is in the middle of the season, the NCAA basketball tournaments are approaching the Final Fours, the MLB season is about to start), but ESPN stuck with professional basketball, as if that’s the only crowd they care about. 

Eventually, after 22 minutes, SportsCenter showed some damn soccer highlights. SVP went through the U.S. coming close to scoring against Costa Rica a couple of times, then the Costa Rica goals and finally the fact the U.S. still qualified before doing a quick interview with Twellman, who didn’t have to scream this time. 

Twellman was brought on again for a later edition of SportsCenter, which ESPN FC put on its YouTube channel. (ESPN didn’t deem any of the soccer worthy of putting on its ESPN YouTube channel.) Props to Twellman for keeping his suit on so late to give his analysis, though maybe he should turn the AC down in his house because he looked like he was dressed a bit too warmly. 

Meanwhile, on Twitter, @SportsCenter didn’t even tweet about the Americans qualifying. The closest it came was retweeting @ESPNFC.

ESPN FC/Futbol Americas, which is excellent even if ESPN doesn’t deem it good enough for any of its three million cable channels, also broke down the USMNT qualifying. 

Of course, the USMNT received infinitely more coverage than the NWSL, which I’m not sure ESPN even knows exists. Then again, maybe the NWSL shouldn’t schedule a full slate of Challenge Cup matches on the final night of Concacaf World Cup qualifying. 

On the print side, none of the four most prominent daily newspapers — USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal — put the USMNT on the front page. This is somewhat understandable considering how late the match was (final whistle blew near 11 p.m. ET), but still shows how little national news outlets care about U.S. soccer.

I enjoyed seeing the number of outlets choosing to use the photo of USMNT players holding up a “qualified” banner before they were actually qualified.

There’s an argument to be made that the USMNT should qualify for every World Cup, that getting this job done isn’t front-page news and should have been completed before the final day of qualifying.  I think that’s an argument rooted in an unrealistic sense of where we are as a soccer nation, and that sort of arrogance played no small role in the USMNT failing to qualify in 2018. I understand American exceptionalism is a powerful force, but you don’t expect it to be so strong in soccer.

This may have been the last meaningful World Cup qualification campaign in U.S. Soccer history. The women are always a shoo-in (that 2011 hiccup notwithstanding) and the men’s field will soon increase to 48 teams, not to mention the Americans will be given an automatic bid to the 2026 World Cup as hosts. Qualifying is something to celebrate, not ignore. Just ask the excellent teams who didn’t qualify how happy they’d be to celebrate being in the World Cup right now. It also says something that many outlets still don’t think soccer moves the needle enough to give it the same sort of coverage reserved for American football or basketball. 

A look at the replies to any of the YouTube videos, tweets or Facebook posts for coverage of the USMNT qualifying is littered with people trashing the coach, the players or U.S. Soccer in general. I know it’s the internet and no one will ever be happy, especially on Facebook, but having been alive at a time when the U.S. qualifying for the World Cup wasn’t a given, it surprises me people can’t recognize the achievement of making it to Qatar. 

I’m not saying fans and media outlets need to cheerlead for the USMNT — we’ve certainly pointed out areas where the team must improve before going to Qatar — but there should be an acknowledgement of success where there was previously failure.

Here’s how other outlets/media teams covered the qualification. 

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