World Cup Begins Without The U.S. Men's Team For the first time since 1986, the U.S. men didn't qualify. Officials say they are focused on getting the team back on the World Cup stage in four years.
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World Cup Begins Without The U.S. Men's Team

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World Cup Begins Without The U.S. Men's Team

World Cup Begins Without The U.S. Men's Team

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The World Cup began today with host Russia defeating Saudi Arabia 5 to 0 in the opening game. Thirty-two countries are competing in the tournament over the next few weeks. The United States is not among them. This is the first time since 1986 that the U.S. men haven't qualified for their sport's biggest event. Soccer officials in this country are focused on getting the team back on the World Cup stage in four years. But are they focusing on the right things? NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Eight months after the disaster...

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: It is over. Trinidad has dethroned the United States, knocking them out of the World Cup 2018.

GOLDMAN: ...Nineteen-year-old U.S. star midfielder Christian Pulisic still laments having to watch the World Cup.

CHRISTIAN PULISIC: You know, sad obviously. We'd like to do it. But now we're just working on developing this team and being ready to qualify for the next one.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: And now U.S. Soccer presents the national team of the United States of America versus the national team of Bolivia.

GOLDMAN: Pulisic and a new-look U.S. team played a Memorial Day friendly against Bolivia. It was in Chester, Pa. More than 11,000 fans were there. So were top U.S. Soccer officials like Nico Romeijn. He oversees a really important department - soccer development. He says missing the World Cup does not mean a crisis in men's soccer.

NICO ROMEIJN: No, too strong - it's too strong.

GOLDMAN: But it was, he says, a big disappointment. And it gave urgency to work already underway like coaching education.

ROMEIJN: It's so important to improve the level of coaching all over the U.S. So not only when you're looking at the highest levels, but also when you're looking at the grass-roots because it's all connected to each other.

GOLDMAN: U.S. Soccer may be keeping calm and carrying on, but it's not ignoring the fractures in the men's national team - coaching controversies, disgruntled players - that contributed to the qualifying debacle. Last week, the federation hired former player Earnie Stewart as the first-ever general manager of the men's team. In February, U.S. Soccer elected a new president. It wasn't Kyle Martino. The former pro player and current NBC soccer analyst ran for the office and lost. Still, Martino continues to share his campaign calls for reform. In particular, he'd like U.S. Soccer to cast a wider net at the youth levels of the sport, the next generation of national team players.

KYLE MARTINO: And you have to create the architecture so that it's inclusive. This is a blue-collar sport everywhere else in the world. It is the most diverse and non-discriminatory game on the planet. And in our country, it's a rich kid's game. So, you know, fixing that absolutely will improve our national team.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) U-S-A. U-S-A.

GOLDMAN: At the game in Chester, fans were happy for a night. The U.S. beat Bolivia, and two 18-year-olds were stars. Josh Sargent and Tim Weah both scored. Sargent made his national team debut and afterwards sounded 18.

JOSH SARGENT: I was very nervous, to be honest, coming out. That was my first professional game ever. So that was a pretty big deal to me, and I was proud to net one.

GOLDMAN: After Pennsylvania, the U.S. went overseas and lost to Ireland and then tied World Cup-bound France. The friendlies perhaps offered a hopeful glimpse of the future. Now that the 2026 World Cup is coming to North America, the U.S. may automatically qualify for that event. New U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro hopes 2026 acts as an incentive to get more kids in this country dreaming of playing for the national team. It's a message of inclusion that should give hope to critics that with the right people making the right decisions, the U.S. can fully realize its potential in men's soccer. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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