The United States Men's National Soccer Team allows modern Americans to feel something very unusual yet something I find very profound and useful: We get to feel like the scrappy underdog clawing our way to the top.
For most of the twentieth century and the short part of the twenty-first century through which we have so far lived, the United States of America has been a dominant player in the geopolitical sphere and an economic powerhouse. During the most recent part of this era of American dominance the United States of America has been the only superpower and the world's economic powerhouse by far. It is a safe assumption to say that everyone alive today has lived through an era of American dominance. During our lives we have lived in the Rome of our era. We have lived in the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth.
That power and prosperity is demonstrated in almost every aspect of human endeavor. The culture of the United States is constantly exported to the entire world. The greatest technological innovations occur in the United States. For example, how many computer operating systems can you think of? All of them were probably created in the United States. The internet was created in the United States. The military capabilities of the United States dwarf all other nations and the United States spends more on military expenditures than the next ten countries combined. In the Olympic games the United States dominates in both medals and the number of athletes. I can go on and on with examples of American dominance and power, but I hope my point is made clear by the examples I have already given.
I don't think American dominance is either a good thing or a bad thing on its face. It is just a fact of the world we live in and it affects how Americans view their country, how they view themselves, and how they view themselves in relation to the world. It's not that America is better than other countries because of this dominance or that Americans are better, it is just that Americans are used to living in the greatest country on Earth. That fact has to play some role in the self-perception of Americans.
This dominance and power wasn't always so, however. In fact, for most of American history, the United States was not the most powerful country on Earth. In the beginning the United States wasn't even a country at all. It was just a set of colonies in the New World with an economy, infrastructure, and culture severely lacking when compared to the Old World superpowers. After the American Revolution and through the Civil War America grew in power and economic prosperity, but European powers still dominated the geopolitical sphere and Europe was where most of the wealth was created and where that wealth resided. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the tide started to turn in America's favor and only after World War II did America emerge as a global superpower. The above is obviously a very simple description of history and we won't discuss the reasons for why the United States became so powerful, but it is safe to say that the America we live in today (in terms of power and prosperity) is not the America of the past.
The United States Men's National Soccer Team represents the America of the past to me. The United States team is not close to being a contender for the gold metal. No one in his or her right mind reasonably expects the United States to win. If the United States is able to get to the Round of 16, we're pretty happy. The quarterfinals? We're ecstatic. The Old World powers of Italy, England, Spain, and Portugal along with some New World teams like Brazil and Argentina dominate the sport. The United States isn't a bad team, but it isn't a great team either. However, the United States team plays their heart out and has an incredible desire to progress and get better. One day, many people say, the United States might have a national soccer team to rival the world's top teams. Until then we will continue watching our underdog team claw their way forward with grit and courage.
This is reminiscent of the American Revolution, where the United States became a brand new country and was far from being a dominant world player. Even during the American Revolution, the army of the colonies was thought to be inferior compared to the professional army of Great Britain. However, America was able to surprise the world and itself time and time again as it has, figuratively speaking, clawed it's way through history to the top of the pack among nations. Americans of past generations lived in a country that was either in the backwash, a nonissue, or a middling power. Modern Americans live in today's version of Rome, by far the most powerful nation on Earth in almost every respect. Watching the American soccer team allowed me to root for the underdog and to not expect to win. Watching the American soccer team gave me the opportunity to wonder if we would advance and be thankful for a tie against Portugal. Watching the American soccer team will make me very pleased if America advances in a way that I just can't feel when America does well in the Olympics. When America performs spectacularly at the Olympics, it's somewhat expected. When America performs well at the World Cup, it's not expected and, therefore, all the more amazing and pleasant to watch and experience. If and when America finally wins the World Cup, I believe I will be absolutely floored and astounded for it will have been a long journey and one in which we were often not taken seriously.
As an aside I would like to point out the difference between a powerful nation and a great nation because I think it's important to understand the difference and because I don’t want readers to be confused as to my opinions about the difference. A powerful nation is easy to see, but a great nation is much more subjective. Also, a powerful nation does not equal a great nation. I talked about America being a powerful nation above, but I also believe America is a great nation because I believe that America (even though it has many faults and unhealed wounds) has the characteristics I believe a great nation would have. I won't go into details here, but whether or not America remains the most powerful or economically prosperous nation has little impact in my mind on whether America is a great nation or not.
Note to Foreign Readers: I use America, US, the United States, and the United States of America above interchangeable to mean the United States of America. I know that America is a continent (or two continents), but in the United States, America is almost always used to mean the United States of America and American is almost always used to mean a citizen of the United States of America.